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Latvia passes long-awaited Holocaust restitution law

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By AP
The memorial on the ruins of the Riga Choral Synagogue burned to the ground by Nazis in 1941, in memory of those who perished in the blaze, in Riga, Latvia, Feb. 10,
The memorial on the ruins of the Riga Choral Synagogue burned to the ground by Nazis in 1941, in memory of those who perished in the blaze, in Riga, Latvia, Feb. 10,   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Roman Koksarov

Latvia’s parliament passed a Holocaust restitution bill Thursday that includes compensation for lost Jewish property and funding to revitalise the Baltic nation’s Jewish community, which was almost completely wiped out during World War II.

Following years of wrangling over the issue, the 100-seat Saeima voted 64-21 to approve the Law on the Compensation of Goodwill to the Latvian Jewish Community on the bill's final reading.

Arkady Sukharenko, chairman of the Latvian Council of Jewish Communities, praised “this historic step” taken by lawmakers.

“Finalising this process demonstrates that even 77 years after the end of the Holocaust, it is never too late for justice,” he said.

Lengthy negotiations involving the World Jewish Restitution Organization, or WJRO, Latvian Jewish representatives and government authorities started in 2005. The United States and Israel also were involved in the talks.

The bill authorises spending €40 million euros over 10 years to revitalise Latvia’s 9,500-strong Jewish community, provide social and material assistance to Holocaust survivors, and to fund Jewish schools, building restoration and cultural projects.

“For the (Jewish) community, we hope now to turn the page and close the book of World War II and its legacy,” Dmitry Krupnikov, head of the Latvian Jewish Community Restitution Fund, told The Associated Press. “It would be very good to put that behind us. We have a lot of things to address in the present conditions that we have here."

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken tweeted praise for “Latvia’s ongoing work to preserve the memory of the Holocaust and promote education about this dark period in history.” Passing the bill “shows true commitment to addressing Holocaust-era property theft,” Blinken said.

WJRO operations chair Gideon Taylor also welcomed the legislation.

“The legislation adopted today is a meaningful acknowledgement of the unique tragedy that befell Latvian Jewry, and a powerful statement of Latvia’s abiding goodwill to its Jewish community and to Latvian Holocaust survivors,” Taylor said in a statement to the AP.

Latvia was occupied in June 1940 by the Soviet Red Army, which was pushed away a year later by Nazi Germany's advancing troops. Moscow retook Latvia in late 1944, and the country remained part of the Soviet Union until it gained independence in 1991.

Some 95,000 Jewish people lived in Latvia before World War II. The thriving prewar community suffered enormous losses during the Nazi occupation. By the time the Red Army reoccupied Latvia, an estimated 90% of the country's Jews had perished.

Jewish community members were prevented from recovering the property they owned in June 1940, when Latvia's first Soviet occupation started, due near-total destruction. The Soviet Union first seized those properties, which were then taken over by the Nazis, again nationalised by the Soviet Union and later become property of the Latvian state.

After independence in 1991, Latvia introduced laws on returning nationalised property. But the issue was left unresolved with no one left to claim the assets of Jews. The remuneration provided in the legislation refers to “goodwill compensation” by Latvia, a nation of 2.8 million, for unrecovered Jewish property.

“We’re not going to ask the properties to be returned,” Krupnikov said. ”It is impossible to return them 25 years after privatisation was finished. Somebody’s been using them, somebody’s been renovating them, somebody’s been improving them. Taking that property from them would be incorrect.”

The legislation states that the Latvian state is not responsible for the Holocaust during the occupation of Latvia and the actions of the Soviet occupation regime.

Decades after the Holocaust, many European countries have taken steps to compensate the families of prewar Jewish property owners, though the picture is very mixed.

Poland, which was home to nearly 3.5 million Jews before World War II, at the time the largest Jewish population of Europe, has not adopted any legislation that would regulate the return of property or provide compensation to prewar owners.

In many cases, properties first seized by the Nazis were later nationalised by Poland's communist regime. The vast majority of those dispossessed were not Jewish, but the issue looms large in Poland’s relationship with Israel and the United States.

Poland passed a law last year that restricts the rights of Holocaust survivors or their descendants to reclaim property. It sparked a major diplomatic crisis with Israel which has still not been resolved.