Bosnia and Herzegovina
Restitution is a complex, contentious issue in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), in part due to its history of conflict. After centuries of Ottoman rule, Austro-Hungarian annexation, Nazi occupation, four decades of socialism, and violent conflict in the 1990s, each ethnic and religious group possesses vast registries of potential claims. The situation is complicated further by the protracted debate about which level of government has competency over claims. The lack of progress and follow‑up on these matters suggests a lack of political will.
The first Sephardic Jews arrived in what is now BiH in 1492 during the Spanish Inquisition. The community integrated into local multiethnic life and prospered. By 1941, BiH was home to approximately 14,000 Jews. During World War II (WWII), present day BiH fell to Nazi forces and was ceded to the Independent State of Croatia (NDH). NDH sent Serbs, Jews, and Roma to various concentration camps, where approximately 12,000 BiH Jews were killed or perished. Following WWII, many Jewish properties were nationalized or confiscated, as a result of which they are part of a restitution claim by the Jewish community in Sarajevo. The Jewish Community of BiH believes that approximately 10 percent of the overall seized property in BiH, with an unofficial, estimated value of €3 billion ($3.3 billion), belonged to BiH Jews and should be approved for restitution.
During the breakup of Yugoslavia and the wars that ensued (1991‑1995), many members of the Jewish community fled BiH. Of that population, more than 2,000 emigrated to Israel with the help of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC). The Jewish population has remained small since then, with approximately 1,000 people across the country identifying as Jewish, including 700 in Sarajevo. The remainder live primarily in Banja Luka, Mostar, Tuzla, Doboj, and Zenica.
Immovable Private, Communal/Religious, and Heirless Property
The state-level Law on Religious Freedom was passed in 2003, allowing religious communities the right to restitution for expropriated property “in accordance with the law;” however, there is not yet a state-level law on restitution. Due to the lack of such a legal framework for property restitution, the Jewish Community of BiH does not have a legal mechanism to formally request the return of its property. Furthermore, the governments of BiH’s two sub-state entities – the Federation and Republika Srpska (RS) – have made no meaningful attempts to resolve this matter. In the absence of a national restitution law, lower-level municipal and cantonal governments have broad authority to allocate disputed property expropriated by the former Communist government.
Local politicians often dole out seized properties as political favors, primarily to the ethnic or religious majority populations in their areas. Due to both the small size of the Jewish population and its lack of political influence, the ad hoc system of limited, in‑kind restitution of personal and/or communal property has excluded the Jewish community. According to the president of the country’s Jewish community, the community has received no property back from municipal or cantonal governments since 1995. At one point, Sarajevo Canton was considering returning the building formerly owned by the Jewish charity La Benevolencija, which currently houses the Cantonal Ministry of Interior offices, but it has not done so. The Jewish community completed an extensive survey in 2005, including a review of legal documentation related to properties formerly owned by Jewish institutions and organizations. With this work done, the community is prepared to file claims as soon as a state-level restitution law is adopted.
Most Jewish families with individual real property claims are waiting for the legal framework to be established before deciding how to pursue their claims. Payment for restitution was the subject of a feasibility study conducted by the Sarajevo Economic Institute in 2006.
According to its president, the Jewish community in BiH is seeking the return of four different kinds of confiscated or seized real property:
a) Communal property formerly owned by Jewish institutions and organizations;
b) Individually owned property;
c) Heirless property, i.e., where the entire family was killed or there are no successor blood relatives; and
d) Property that was forcibly “donated” to the Yugoslav state in 1948-1949. (When the state of Israel was created, Jews wishing to emigrate were required to “donate” their property to the state government to obtain the necessary exit visa.)
At the state level, there has been a lack of political will to adopt a law on restitution. In 2005, BiH’s Council of Ministers established a Commission for Restitution to consider possible approaches to the restitution of property confiscated during and after WWII. Officially called the Law on De-nationalization, the Serb delegates in the House of Peoples (the upper house of the BiH Parliament) rejected the initial version of this comprehensive law in 2008.
In December 2008, the Council of Ministers formed a parliamentary working group to draft a new and improved version of the law, this time including input from the Interreligious Council’s (IRC) legal working group. The state-level Ministry of Justice announced in July 2009 that the new draft Law on De-nationalization would ensure the return of confiscated property (“natural restitution”) to original owners as a first and preferred option. The law directed that for cases in which natural restitution was not possible, in-kind restitution would apply. In cases where in‑kind restitution was not possible, the law foresaw financial compensation.
The draft law was posted on the Ministry of Justice website for public comment, after which it should have advanced via normal legislative procedures for adoption by the Council of Ministers and then Parliament. However, this legislation has not been moved forward.
The Republika Srpska (RS) passed a series of entity-level laws on restitution in 2000, including the RS Law on Return of Confiscated Property and Compensation, the RS Law on Return of Seized Real Property, and the RS Law on the Return of Seized Land. Under the proposed laws, the RS assumed financial responsibility for compensating claimants whose property could not be returned. The Office of the High Representative (OHR) later asserted its authority under the Dayton Peace Agreement to annul the legislation, citing the financial burdens of implementing the program. The OHR argued that the laws would “cause irreparable damage to the economy of BiH” because the RS had not identified a funding source for the payments. Furthermore, OHR claimed that the package of laws did not provide sufficient protections to prevent discrimination in the restitution process, would overburden the judicial system, and would add to an already bloated bureaucracy.
Movable Property: Nazi-Confiscated and Looted Art, Judaica, and Jewish Cultural Property
Bosnia and Herzegovina participated in the 1998 Washington Conference on Holocaust Era Assets and in the 2009 Holocaust Era Assets Conference in Prague, and it is a signatory to the International Council of Museum’s Code of Ethics. There are no restitution laws in place that cover movable property, the country’s museums do not conduct provenance research, and experts do not know whether restitution of any objects from cultural institutions has taken place. Some museums, including the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina, hold artifacts of unclear provenance. The Library of the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina holds ancient Jewish books, including the renowned Sarajevo Haggadah; but the provenance of these books is unclear. The U.S. Department of State is not aware of any provenance research being conducted on Judaica held in BiH. The Jewish Community of BiH reported that it was not aware of any issues involving confiscated Jewish art or other movable property.
Access to Archival Documents
Access to archival materials is relatively unhindered. Records from the period during which BiH was under Austro-Hungarian rule were diligently maintained and include accurate data on properties and their owners. However, after the Nazi-led invasion in 1941 and subsequent break‑up of Yugoslavia in 1991, changes in property ownership were not registered accurately, which would further complicate the implementation of restitution legislation, once enacted. As of 1945, all properties owned by the Jewish community were registered as state‑owned property.
Education, Remembrance, Research, and Memorial Sites
BiH’s segregated education system has generally neglected the Holocaust in school curricula. According to the Jewish community, the Holocaust is either mentioned briefly or not taught at all. History classes largely focus on events that came after the turbulent 1990s to the exclusion of other significant historical events. Compounding the problem is the segregated school system in which three different versions of local history are taught, with Bosniak, Croat, and Serb students each exposed to a different version of the country’s and region’s history.
BiH is an observer country to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. The country observes International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27, and an annual commemoration event is supported by the BiH Council of Ministers through the Ministry for Human Rights and Refugees. Members of the BiH Presidency and leaders of the two entities have attended and made statements during the event. The Jewish community commemorates Days of Remembrance. A memorial site in the small village of Donja Gradina, now part of BiH, commemorates the mass killings of prisoners of the Jasenovac concentration camp in Croatia during the Holocaust. Prisoners were ferried from Jasenovac across the Sava River to Donja Gradina, where they were murdered and buried in mass graves.