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World

Latvia, Lithuania make belated payment to Holocaust survivors

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JTA – A narrow window has opened for Lithuanian Holocaust survivors and their descendants to apply for restitution under the terms of a law passed last year.

A similar law enacted in Latvia has also taken effect, giving Holocaust survivors from that country the chance to secure one-time payments of about $5 300 (R98 769).

“For many, these agreements aren’t just about money, they’re about recognition,” Gideon Taylor, the president of the World Jewish Restitution Organisation, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “It’s countries coming to terms with the past, acknowledging that there were Jews there, that every house, every building represents an individual story.”

Both of the Baltic nations contained rich centres of Jewish life and history before World War II. The Nazis, together with their Lithuanian and Latvian collaborators, killed 90% of the 220 000 Jews in Lithuania and 75% of the 95 000 Jews in Latvia. Today, there are about 5 000 Jews living in Lithuania and 9 500 in Latvia.

Both countries were occupied by the Soviet Union during the war and remained part of it until its dissolution. That explains why they are offering restitution more than 80 years after their Jews were expropriated, deported, and killed, Taylor said.

“The communist ideology was that they had fought against the Nazis and had no responsibility,” he said. “So there was never any possibility of reparations or compensation for property, and in addition, property was all confiscated by the communist government and belonged to the state.”

Some Latvian and Lithuanian survivors might draw compensation through the annual reparations packages negotiated by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, which last year secured $1.4 billion (R26 billion), the most ever, for survivors. But the former Soviet countries haven’t offered their own direct compensation programmes, and most programmes for descendants of those who were killed, imprisoned, or had their property seized by the Nazis and their collaborators have expired.

Starting in 1991, for example, Lithuania passed a series of laws dedicated to the restitution of private property expropriated by the totalitarian regimes, but since these laws required applicants to have current Lithuanian citizenship, they effectively excluded most Holocaust survivors and families who fled the country.

Now, the Lithuanian restitution programme is open to both the survivors and direct heirs of private Jewish property that was nationalised or illegally expropriated under the Nazi and Soviet regimes. A 2022 law granted five to 10 million euros – roughly $5.4 million to $10.9 million – to be distributed among Holocaust victims by the Good Will Foundation. The exact amount of each one-time payment will be determined based on the total number of approved applicants, who will receive their compensation by 1 July 2025.

The Latvian programme, also launched in 2022, offers a payment of 5 000 euros (about $5 470) to survivors who lived in Latvia as of 21 June 1941, during the country’s brief German occupation, meaning that only people 82 and older could be eligible. The Latvian Jewish Community Restitution Fund will approve the compensation funds on a rolling basis.

The World Jewish Restitution Organisation is attempting to find survivors and direct heirs who might be eligible for restitution across the Jewish world, including in Israel, the United States, and Canada. Survivor databases have allowed them to contact some people directly. But they are also running social media campaigns, placing adverts, and even partnering with influencers to reach the shrinking number of people who still hold a connection to the past.

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