The Government of Serbia remains committed to the objectives of the Terezin Declaration and has laws and mechanisms in place that have addressed the restitution of or compensation for wrongfully seized or nationalized private property, communal/religious property, and heirless property.  In practice, there were obstacles to timely filing under the 2006 and 2011 laws addressing communal/religious property and private property, respectively, while Jewish community representatives in Serbia report general satisfaction with the filing process for heirless and unclaimed property under a 2016 law.

Prior to World War II, the total number of Jews throughout the Kingdom of Yugoslavia was approximately 78,000, including 4,000 stateless Jews from Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia.  Of the 17,200 Jews who lived in what is now the Republic of Serbia before the war, 15,060 died during the Holocaust.  According to the World Jewish Congress, Serbia is currently home to between 1,400 and 2,800 Jews.

In April 1941, Nazi Germany established a military occupation administration in Serbia.  An indigenous regime and police force were nominally supervised by a puppet Serb government under former Yugoslav General Milan Nedic.  During the summer of 1941, Nazi military and police authorities interned most Jews and Roma in five detention camps.  One of these camps, known as Semlin (what is now Staro Sajmiste), was located across the Sava River from downtown Belgrade in an area that was then part of the Independent State of Croatia.

In response to insurgencies largely led by the Serb nationalist Chetnik movement, Hitler in 1941 ordered the shooting of 100 hostages for every ethnic German death in Serbia and the Banat region.  Nazi military and police units used this order as a pretext to shoot virtually all male Serbian Jews (approximately 8,000 persons); approximately 2,000 actual and perceived communists, Serb nationalists, and democratic politicians of the interwar era; and approximately 1,000 male Roma.

In the autumn of 1941, Nazi security police began rounding up Jewish women and children in Serbia and incarcerating them in the Staro Sajmiste detention camp.  Between March and May 1942, German security police killed about 6,280 persons, including virtually all of the camp’s remaining Jews who were mostly women and children, using a mobile gas van sent from Berlin.  After these murders, the commander of the Security and Police and Gestapo in Serbia cabled to Berlin that Serbia was Judenfrei or “free of Jews.”

Nazi authorities seized Jewish property beginning in May 1941, shortly after they invaded Yugoslavia.  In May 1945, Yugoslavia passed Law 36/45 (“Handling Property Abandoned by its Owner during the Occupation and Property Seized by the Occupier and his Collaborators”), which provided for widespread restitution and compensation.  However, the communist government came to power shortly thereafter and nationalized most assets.  Successor governments did not begin any restitution process until the 2006 Law on the Restitution of Property to Churches and Religious Communities and the 2011 Law on Property Restitution and Compensation.

The 2006 law regulates the return of communal religious property of churches and other religious communities in the country confiscated after March 1945, thereby excluding properties taken during World War II.  In cases where restitution is not possible, alternate forms of compensation are provided, such as substitute properties or monetary payments.  The law specified a 2008 deadline to submit claims.  According to the World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO), the Jewish communities of Serbia identified 609 pre-war properties belonging to the Jewish community and submitted paperwork for 520 communal property claims under the 2006 law.  As of April 2019, property returned to the Jewish communities under the 2006 law includes 8,719 square meters (93,850 square feet) of “objects” (buildings), 28 hectares (70 acres) of agricultural land, and 2.3 hectares (5.6 acres) of unbuilt land.  The Serbian Restitution Agency estimates the value of these properties at €1.5 million ($1.68 million).

The 2011 law provided for the return of private property, with a two-year window for filing claims.  The law allowed for the restitution of properties to former owners or their descendants or, in cases where restitution was not possible, financial compensation in the form of bonds up to a maximum of €500,000 (approximately $560,000) per claimant with terms ranging from 10 to 15 years, depending on the claimant’s age.  The value of financial compensation could be reduced, however, because the law authorized an overall maximum level of compensation for all private property.  Properties that were sold, privatized by companies, turned into diplomatic or cultural facilities, or a number of other categories were generally exempt from restitution.  The deadline for claims under this law was March 2014, and some heirs of Holocaust victims did file claims.  The WJRO noted, however, that the two-year period to file claims was insufficient because it did not take into account the difficulties for elderly Holocaust victims or their descendants, both in Serbia and throughout the world, to become aware of the opportunity to submit claims, obtain all required documents, and secure needed assistance for submitting claims.

As of April 2019, total returned property under the 2011 law includes 6,725 total “objects” (4,655 business offices, 1,004 apartments, and 1,066 buildings), 433 hectares (1,070 acres) of unbuilt land, 5,648 hectares (13,957 acres) of forest land, and 53,266 hectares (131,623 acres) of agricultural land.  The government does not keep records noting the religious or ethnic affiliation of claimants under this law.

In February 2016, Serbia became the first country following the 2009 Terezin Declaration to pass a law aimed at returning unclaimed and heirless Jewish property taken during the Holocaust and/or subsequently nationalized during communist rule.  Known as the “Holocaust Heirless Property Law,” it provided a three-year window for Serbia’s 10 Jewish communities to file claims for restitution of or compensation for eligible private property that had belonged to Jewish owners before the Holocaust and who perished and left leaving no heirs.  The deadline to file claims was February 28, 2019.  Serbia’s Jewish communities were primarily responsible for researching and filing the claims within their respective jurisdictions.  Although the local Jewish communities would benefit from ownership of any restituted heirless property, they would also serve as repositories for those properties in the event that a legitimate heir was to come forward in the future.  In contrast to Serbia’s other restitution laws, the 2016 law protects heirs’ rights to claim restitution indefinitely, if they were unaware or unable to establish a claim before the law’s deadline.

The law defines “heirless property” as any property that was not the subject of a legitimate claim for restitution.  The Jewish community must prove that the former owner of the property was a member of the community and the property was confiscated during the Holocaust.  Any property that had been sold in subsequent years to a private owner is exempt from restitution or financial compensation.

In addition to providing a mechanism for restitution claims, the law also designated 25 annual payments of €950,000 (approximately $1.05 million) from the Serbian government to the Federation of Jewish Communities in Serbia (Savez Jevrejskih Opština Srbije and known as “Savez”) to support the revitalization of Serbian Jewish life.  The first payment to Savez was made in 2017.  The use of these funds, and of funds derived from rents on returned property, is strictly confined to activities as defined by Article 22 of the law.  Such activities include, for example, education and research on the Holocaust, financial support to Holocaust survivors, financial support to Serbia’s Jewish communities, student scholarships, humanitarian aid, and strengthening ties between Serbia’s Jewish communities and communities abroad.

The law mandates that 20 percent of total proceeds from the law be remitted to Serbia’s Holocaust survivors domestically and abroad for at least 10 years after entry of the law into force.  The Serbian government did not provide support to Holocaust survivors prior to the 2016 law.  In 2017, Savez sent letters to hundreds of Holocaust survivors in 27 countries to notify potential recipients of their benefits.  Savez and the WJRO publicized an application for survivors to apply for annual payments by July 31 in both 2017 and 2018.  Savez reported that during the first year after adoption of the Holocaust Heirless Property Law, updating and verifying the list of living Holocaust survivors of Serbian origins was a significant task.  In 2018, Savez made payments to 493 survivors.

The law also requires the appointment of a supervisory board with representatives from the country’s Jewish community, the WJRO, and a chairperson appointed directly by the government to oversee management of funds and incomes generated by the restitution law.  The board is primarily responsible for auditing use of the annual financial payments from the government to Savez.  After more than a year of advocacy by the U.S. and Israeli embassies in Belgrade, as well as the WJRO, the government established a supervisory body of five members and appointed a chair in March 2018.  The board produces periodic reports on property with the help of an independent auditor.  Additionally, the board works with Savez (which has two representatives on the board) to resolve concerns about privacy and information disclosure as well as address community concerns or challenges regarding report conclusions.

Most stakeholders in the Jewish community report general satisfaction with government responsiveness and facilitation in claims processing under the law.  Serbia’s Restitution Agency reports that the country’s Jewish communities filed 1,683 total claims under the Holocaust Heirless Property Law, of which 70 percent had been processed as of April 2019.  To date, returned property under the law includes 109 “objects,” which are defined as buildings, business premises, apartments, and garages.  The total area of these premises is 7,803 square meters (83,991 square feet), as well as 640 hectares (1,581 acres) of agricultural land, and 442 square meters (4,758 square feet) of unbuilt land.  The Restitution Agency estimates the value of these properties at €17.5 million ($19.6 million).

The Restitution Agency reports no claims for strictly Jewish cemeteries or burial sites under any of the three property restitution laws.  They noted that because many cemeteries with Jewish remains were also used by members of other faiths, it would be difficult or impossible to return such properties to individual religious groups.  Savez reported that the majority of Serbia’s Jewish cemeteries were not confiscated and remained in the possession of local Jewish communities, and confirmed that it also was unaware of any pending claims for restitution of burial sites.  Savez representatives also noted that many cemeteries had been neglected because of the decimation of Serbia’s Jewish population during the Holocaust.  Restitution Agency representatives separately reported a similar issue with a cemetery in the mid-sized city of Sabac; the cemetery had been returned to the municipality, which now maintains it in the absence of a local Jewish community to claim and care for it.

U.S. Citizen Claims

Some U.S. citizen claimants under the 2011 general restitution law expressed dissatisfaction that the majority of claims were eligible for financial compensation at less than the anticipated value.  As of the summer of 2019, the Department had not been made aware of any pending American citizen claims under the 2016 Holocaust Heirless Property Law, although Savez reports that of the 493 Holocaust survivors receiving benefits, 30 survivors were living in the United States.  American citizen claims for property under the 2016 law are subject to the same process as for all other claimants.

Serbia’s Restitution Agency reported receiving no claims with regard to confiscated movable property, art, Judaica, and Jewish cultural property dating from the Holocaust era.  Representatives from the agency expressed doubt that there were many, if any, such items left in Serbia to be the subject of any claims, but noted that any items held by the National Museum would be exempt from restitution.  Savez representatives reported that they were unaware of any claims related to looted art or any instances of Jewish ritual objects being kept in private art collections.  There appears to be little to no research available within Serbia on the provenance of holdings in state museums or galleries.  The 2016 Holocaust Heirless Property Law is specifically limited to items that were taken in Serbia and excludes looted art that was brought into the country.  This exclusion has raised concerns by restitution experts and curators who believe looted art from abroad could be in the country’s institutions.

The 2016 Holocaust Heirless Property Law directed archives and institutions of local governments and provinces to comply expeditiously with requests for information, and dictated that potential claimants/applicants would generally not be charged fees for services related to archival research.  The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum enjoys good cooperation in Serbia and has ongoing projects with the Military Archives of the Ministry of Defense and an ongoing digitization project in the historical archives in the cities of Subotica and Novi Sad.

Jewish community representatives have reported general satisfaction with access to archival materials after the passage of the 2016 law.  The Jewish Community of Belgrade commented that they enjoyed a collaborative relationship with the local archives staff while they researched and processed some 700 property restitution claims.  Some local communities outside of Belgrade noted difficulties accessing smaller municipal archives, and Savez reported that access depended to a certain degree on the capacities and staffing of local offices and on the local bureaucracy.

After reports that some Jewish communities faced difficulties accessing local archives, U.S. Embassy Belgrade staff visited three municipal archives in 2018 to advocate for more responsiveness to the groups’ requests for information.  As of mid-2019, Savez reported that all local Jewish communities had sufficient access to archival documents to file their claims in a timely manner.

Holocaust education, research, and remembrance activities are some of the permissible uses of the annual government payments to the Jewish community under the Holocaust Heirless Property Law.

Serbia joined the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) in 2011 and holds several annual commemorations at Holocaust sites around the country.  Senior government officials generally attend these commemoration ceremonies, including the Prime Minister and President.  An annual ceremony is held to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27 at a monument near the location of the Staro Sajmiste concentration camp in Belgrade.  A separate commemoration takes place on December 16 each year specifically to mark the National Remembrance Day of Roma Killed in WWII at the Jabuka execution site near the city of Pancevo.  Annual ceremonies are also held in January to commemorate the Novi Sad Massacre, also known as the Novi Sad Raid, during which occupying Hungarian fascist forces rounded up and killed an estimated 3,000-4,000 local Serbs, Jews, and Roma from January 21-23, 1942.

A separate ceremony is held each October to honor the victims of the Jajinci mass execution site, which was used by the Nazis between 1941 and 1944 to kill more than 60,000 Jews, Roma, communists, political dissidents, and others fighting the occupation.  In 2014, the City of Belgrade established an annual Day of Remembrance for Holocaust victims on May 10, which is the day in 1942 that the last group of Jewish women and children were killed at Staro Sajmiste.

Information on the Holocaust and on Nazi crimes committed during World War II (including throughout the territory of the former Yugoslavia) is part of the standard curriculum in Serbian public schools.  Additional third-party materials are authorized and available to teachers for optional, more in-depth modules on the Holocaust.

There are several Holocaust concentration camps, labor camps, and extermination sites in Serbia.  While memorial statues, parks, and commemoration ceremonies mark several Holocaust locations, Serbia lacks a comprehensive approach to memorializing or properly recognizing its Holocaust sites.  The shooting grounds of Jajinci, for instance, are marked with a memorial park to commemorate the 65,000-80,000 Serbs, Jews, and others killed there on the southwest outskirts of Belgrade during World War II.  A monument of remembrance is located near the site of the Staro Sajmiste extermination camp in Belgrade, although some portions of the grounds are dilapidated and subject to squatting and commercial use.  The Topovske Supe camp site in the heart of Belgrade stands completely abandoned.  Military barracks that housed nearly all of Belgrade’s Jewish adult male population before their extermination in 1941 are decayed; a plaque that once marked the spot is missing; and a major real estate developer owns a portion of the site with plans to build a shopping center.

Although a commission to establish a formal memorial center at Staro Sajmiste had been active for nearly 10 years, regular monthly meetings ceased in September 2018.  As of late 2019, the Ministry of Culture and Information was drafting a law that would formally establish a memorial center, funding, and oversight bodies for the site.  The law is also expected to acknowledge the Topovske Supe site, but it is unclear how much protection, funding, and memorialization will be provided.

Justice for Uncompensated Survivors Today (JUST) Act Report: Serbia
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