Heir to stolen Jewish property
foiled by Czech restitution law
By Magnus Bennett
PRAGUE, April 24 2001 (JTA) – The Reich protector of Bohemia and Moravia liked nothing better than to relax in his favorite wartime residence 15 miles north of here.
The Panenske Brezany Castle wasn't Reinhard Heydrich's home, however.
It had been taken from a Jewish businessman of Czech nationality, Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, who had escaped from the country before the Nazis invaded.
When Bloch-Bauer died just after the end of the war, he left the castle to his two nieces and a nephew. But the postwar Communist regime had different plans, absorbing the property into state hands.
It seemed as if the castle would finally return to the family when Czech legislators passed a new restitution law 10 years ago allowing seized property to be handed back to descendants of original owners.
But there was a catch. Only Czech citizens could apply.
That came as a body blow to Marie Altmann, Bloch-Bauer's heir and only surviving niece, who recalls with fondness the summers she spent at the castle as a young girl until she and her family were forced to flee from Europe in the late 1930s. She had never taken up Czech citizenship and therefore could not make a claim for her heritage.
"It is terribly unjust," the 85-year-old told JTA from her home in Los Angeles. "What has my citizenship got to do with this? My uncle was a very good Czech and a friend of Tomas Masaryk," Czechoslovakia's first president, "and yet I cannot claim the property." Ironically, Altmann and other foreigners can make claims in the Czech Republic for looted artwork, which are not subject to the same citizenship restrictions.
Altmann's U.S. attorney is livid about the restitution clause.
"In our view, it is nothing less than scandalous," said Randol Schoenberg, who is also trying to recover from Austria a set of valuable paintings once owned by Bloch-Bauer in a separate case. "This is a property used by Heydrich which was taken from a Jewish family and was never returned. Mrs. Altmann has not received a penny from her uncle's estate."
Schoenberg believes the case epitomizes a much wider problem, a view backed by the British-based group Search and Unite, which specializes in locating people who lost Czech property during the Nazi and Communist eras.
Founder David Lewin, who said he had already been approached by half a dozen non-Czech citizens from around the world who had failed in Czech property claims, argued: "It is totally wrong of any government to accept that people have been wronged but to refuse to give property back because they are of a different nationality."
Lewin believes there are many other cases like Altmann's, most of which involve Jewish claimants. He is particularly concerned that many have been put off from applying for their properties back because of the law, which stipulates that property claims must be made by May 25 this year.
The pressure is building on the Czechs to rethink their policy. Baroness Sarah Ludford, a member of the European Parliament, wants to make changes in the restitution clause a prerequisite for the Czech Republic's planned accession to the European Union.
She raised the issue in a letter this month to a European commissioner, Guenther Verheugen, after hearing of a similar case to Altmann's from a British citizen.
Describing the legislation as a "serious injustice," she told Verheugen: "It seems to me to offend against the ban in the E.U. treaties against discrimination on the grounds of nationality for the heirs resident in and holding citizenship of an E.U. country to be disbarred from reclaiming property in the Czech Republic."
If necessary, Ludford intends to raise the issue on the floor of the European Parliament in an attempt to embarrass the Czech Republic into a change of heart.
That seems unlikely at the moment. A spokeswoman for the Czech Ministry of Finance, which oversees issues of property and restitution, said the current law did not allow any exceptions. If there are to be any changes in the law, it must come from the Czech Parliament, she said.
In the meantime, Altmann is left with nothing more than distant memories of a golden age.
"I see no point in going back to Panenske Brezany," she said. "The memories are definitely no longer there because I am sure it has all changed. It once had a beautiful park, with so many flowers. It was like a fairy tale."
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