The Holocaust in Czechoslovakia took different courses in the three distinct parts of the country. In the area of the current Czech Republic, Nazi Germany imposed its direct rule after the Munich Agreement of September 1938 and the annexation of Bohemia and Moravia in March 1939. (Slovakia declared independence and became allied to Nazi Germany.) Nazi authorities soon thereafter introduced various regulations that excluded Jews from economic and public life and established the Central Office for Jewish Emigration in Prague in an effort to force the emigration of Czech Jews. By the fall of 1941, however, the first trains left for the concentration camp established in Terezin (Theresienstadt). From there, Jews were deported to extermination camps in Eastern European countries in 1942-1944. About 80,000 out of 120,000 Czech Jews living in Bohemia and Moravia prior to the war were killed. As of mid-2019, the Jewish population of the Czech Republic was estimated at 10,000-14,000 people, of whom 3,500 were registered members of Jewish communities.
In June 2009, Czech Prime Minister Fischer hosted 46 countries at the Prague Holocaust Era Assets Conference in Prague and Terezin. (Two other states, Serbia and the Holy See, joined as observers.) Delegations discussed the restitution of wrongfully seized or nationalized property from the Holocaust era and the welfare of Holocaust survivors, as well as Holocaust education and commemoration. Conference participants drafted the Terezin Declaration on Holocaust Era Assets and Related Issues, and it was endorsed by all 46 participating countries and subsequently also by Serbia.
While the Government of the Czech Republic remains generally committed to the goals and objectives of the Terezin Declaration and has adopted laws and mechanisms that allow for some property restitution, there have been challenges in practice, especially for claimants who live outside the country or do not have Czech citizenship.
Immovable Private, Communal/Religious, and Heirless Property
The government has laws and mechanisms in place regarding restitution. Local NGOs and advocacy groups reported that while the government had made significant progress on resolution of Holocaust-era claims, including by foreign citizens, many outstanding claims remain. Some NGOs continue to push for progress, particularly on the disposition of heirless property and complex cases involving non-Czech citizens. While it is still possible to file claims for Nazi‑confiscated artwork, the claims period for other types of property expired in October 1994 (Jewish private property – real estate), June 2001 (Jewish private property – agricultural land), and December 2013 (Jewish communal property – under the Church Restitution Act).
After the fall of the Communist regime in November 1989, the Czechoslovak Parliament adopted legislation providing for property restitution. The first two laws, passed in 1991 (Act No. 87 and Act No. 229) covered confiscations during the period 1948-1989 and were primarily concerned with private property, farmland, and artwork. After the split of Czechoslovakia in 1993, the Czech Parliament in 1994 adopted Act No. 116, which provided for the restitution of property taken by the Nazis from Holocaust victims between 1938 and 1945. These laws still required that private property claimants be Czech citizens. Also in 1994, the Czech government approved an executive order allowing for the restitution of 202 Jewish communal properties, including the return of the state-owned Jewish Museum to the country’s Federation of Jewish Communities. In 2000, the Czech Parliament approved a law (Act No. 212) providing for restitution of Jewish private and communal properties.
In 2000, the Czech government and the Federation of Jewish Communities (FJC) also established the Endowment Fund for Holocaust Victims (NFOH), with some of the money in the fund originating from immovable property that was left heirless after the war. (The Federation is an umbrella organization of existing Jewish communities and the legal successors to those Jewish communities that were annihilated.) The Czech government contributed 300 million Czech koruna ($13 million) from its National Property Fund to support compensation claims. One-third of the fund was dedicated to help compensate for properties that could not be physically restituted. In March 2006, the NFOH announced it had concluded payments for such private claims, totaling more than $4 million, to some 500 claimants residing in 27 countries. Approximately one-third of the fund was designated for maintenance of communal properties, and the final third was designated for NGO-administered social and health care programs for approximately 500 Holocaust survivors and commemoration and education projects. In 2015‑2019, the government contributed an additional 100 million Czech koruna ($7.7 million) for social care and education.
In 2017, the Ministry of Culture designated as items of cultural heritage 12 tombstones and tombstone fragments from a former Jewish cemetery in Prostejov (in eastern Czech Republic), which itself was designated as a cultural monument in 2016. Gravestones from the cemetery, where approximately 2000 Jews were buried, were removed during World War II and either ground into gravel for roads or distributed to local residents for use as building material. The site is now a public park. A U.S. philanthropist-funded proposal to partially restore the cemetery, at first supported by the city, has become controversial and sparked a wave of anti-Semitic speech and threats in a local newspaper and in social media. The U.S. Department of State continues to monitor the situation closely, keeping in contact with the U.S. philanthropist and the Federation of Jewish Communities, which is currently negotiating with the city.
Movable Property: Nazi-Confiscated and Looted Art
Following adoption of the Washington Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art in 1998, the Czech Ministry of Culture tasked all public galleries and museums to carry out provenance research in their collections. A database of 7,500 pieces of art believed to have belonged to Holocaust victims was created and opened to the public. Collections of major public galleries (National Gallery in Prague, Moravian Gallery, and the Decorative Arts Museum) were fully searched; other public collections were partially searched. There is no legal requirement for private galleries and collections to follow suit. Respected international auction houses with branches in the Czech Republic conduct provenance research.
The 2000 law on Jewish property restitution (Act No. 212) also allows for restitution of works of art with no deadline for filing claims. Unlike other restitution laws, it does not require the claimants to hold Czech citizenship. However, the rules for identifying who is an heir are considerably more restrictive than in the Czech civil code, and objects that have been restituted are subject to export restrictions. In 2012, the Czech Ministry of Culture established the “Centre for Documentation of Culture Property Transfers of World War II Victims,” a public benefit institution dedicated to documentation of confiscated works of art belonging to Holocaust victims. It is the successor organization to a documentation center established under the Czech Academy of Sciences in 2001, based on the recommendation by a joint expert commission formed by the Czech Government three years earlier. It conducts historic research of legal and administrative mechanisms of art confiscations, publishes its findings, and organizes expert conferences. Recently, it started offering assistance to claimants.
Judaica and Jewish Cultural Property
While most Judaica and Jewish cultural property in the areas occupied by Nazi Germany after the Munich Accords of September 1938 were destroyed during Kristallnacht two months later, a majority of Judaica and liturgical objects from Jewish communities in the Nazi-occupied Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia were assembled in a central depository in Prague, managed by the Jewish Central Museum. The Museum, nationalized in 1950, was returned to the Federation of Jewish Communities in 1994. It has the largest collection of Judaica of any Jewish museum in the world, carries out provenance research, and has restituted various items. The Jewish Museum continues to screen catalogues of international auction houses to locate Judaica of Czech Jewish communities looted during the war and has received items from the United States and elsewhere. It currently has an outstanding claim against a U.S. citizen, who has in his possession a manuscript that belonged before the war to a Jewish community in the (now) southeast of the Czech Republic. The Jewish Museum in Prague produced an acclaimed traveling exhibition, “The Precious Legacy: Judaic Treasures from the Czechoslovak State Collections.” The collection contained many items that had been confiscated by Nazi Germany for a planned “Museum to an Extinct Race.”
The National Library in Prague has restituted manuscripts, but it still possesses large numbers of looted books.
Access to Archival Documents
Official archives of the Czech Republic are open to the public with no restrictions. Files related to the Holocaust period are located in the archival collections of the Czech National Archives, the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes, and regional and local archives. Claimants have unlimited access to various archival documents that could be relevant to prove ownership. National and regional archival institutions have cooperated on a long-term basis with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and enabled copying of large collections of archival documents pertaining to Nazi occupation for the research purposes.
Education, Remembrance, Research, and Memorial Sites
The Czech Republic is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), and Czech law designates January 27 as International Holocaust Remembrance Day. On this day, official remembrance ceremonies attended by Czech government leadership are held in Prague, Terezin (including the site of the Theresienstadt Ghetto and concentration camp), and other cities. The main event is convened annually by the Czech Senate and includes speeches by high-level politicians, such as the Speaker of the Senate, Speaker of the Chamber of Deputies, Jewish community officials, and Holocaust survivors.
Other ceremonies are held in various locations throughout the country marking different anniversaries or significant dates related to the Holocaust in the Czech Republic. For instance, in October there is a ceremony at the Prague Bubny railway station to commemorate the beginning of deportation of Czech Jews to the Theresienstadt camp. Bubny Station was the departure point for transports carrying tens of thousands of Prague’s Jewish inhabitants to Nazi ghettoes, concentration camps, and extermination camps. On January 27, 2019, the Czech Parliament adopted a resolution codifying a new definition of anti-Semitism based on the definition adopted by the IHRA in 2016.
The Welfare of Holocaust (Shoah) Survivors and Other Victims of Nazi Persecution
According to law No. 255 of 1946, Czech citizens who were persecuted for political, racial, or religious reasons during World War II are entitled to a special monthly supplement to their pensions. A different law (Act 2017 of 1994) provided for lump-sum payments to victims of Nazi persecution. Law 170/2002 provides for payments to war veterans for medical or recreation treatment and includes people persecuted for political, racial, or religious reasons. There are also various social benefits that are generally available to senior citizens, including housing and social need allowances.
In addition to funds from the NFOH for health and social care, Czech Holocaust survivors also receive payments from various programs of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, including the Health Fund, Fund of Emergency Assistance, and Centre and East European Fund.