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.