Beginning this winter, thousands of Jewish survivors of the Holocaust will receive monthly payments from Hungary under a landmark agreement to ease Jewish suffering from World War II.
Nearly 50 years late in coming, the deal is being hailed by some Jewish and government leaders as a model for Eastern Europe, where most of the 6 million Jewish victims of the Holocaust perished but few governments have settled accounts with devastated communities.
But the long-awaited agreement is a bittersweet victory for Hungary’s 100,000 Jews, a shadow of the prewar Jewish population but now the largest in the former Eastern Bloc.
“What is going to be given back is a very, very small portion of what was taken away,” said Lajos Bakos, vice president of the Eastern European Commission of the World Jewish Congress, a leading partner in the negotiations.
Although it directs tens of millions of dollars into a foundation for Jewish programs, the accord makes plain that the Hungarian government and countless current owners of prewar Jewish property will benefit indefinitely from the Holocaust.
Under the agreement tentatively approved by Parliament last month, thousands of confiscated Jewish properties will never be returned to Holocaust survivors, to heirs of the 600,000 Hungarian Jews killed during the war or to Jewish organizations. Present-day owners will retain possession of all but a handful of properties that will be sold as seed money for the foundation.
The value of the unreturned real estate exceeds $40 billion, according to one government calculation--the equivalent of the country’s annual gross domestic product and a sum far greater than the controversial missing Swiss bank deposits of Holocaust victims.
Struggling after four decades of Communist rule, the Hungarian government has successfully pleaded poverty in legal challenges to its compensation programs, all of which fall far short of total restitution.
In the case of the new Jewish agreement, the government is fulfilling an obligation under the Paris Peace Treaty of 1947, which required the losing Hungarians in World War II “to support and restore” the country’s surviving Jewish community by giving Jewish organizations property belonging to Holocaust victims.
The order was ignored under Communism, getting serious consideration only after the political and economic changes of 1989. According to the agreement, about 20,000 Holocaust survivors will receive $30 monthly and a still-undecided sum will go to cultural and educational programs for Jews.
“The Hungarian constitutional court has agreed today’s compensation cannot take place as it would have in 1947 because of the economic situation,” said Erika Planko, a Ministry of Justice official involved in drafting the Jewish settlement.
Government and Jewish officials said they worried about an anti-Semitic backlash if Jewish property were treated differently from other Hungarian real estate. Nearly 1 million Hungarians have been unable to get back nationalized property, settling instead for low-value government-issued investment coupons, which were also available to Jewish claimants.
Already, members of the Independent Smallholders Party, a rural party in Parliament, have raised questions about the new Jewish deal, saying it unfairly singles out Jewish suffering.
“It is not clear to the Hungarian people why the responsibility for Jewish compensation is with them,” said Jozsef Torgyan, the Smallholders’ president. “It is the Nazis who forced passage of the inhumane laws, and it is the Allies who had the task of making sure the Paris Treaty was fulfilled in 1947.”
Such arguments infuriate many Jews, who insist that the extermination of Jews during World War II places their restitution claims in their own category.
But some of the blame for delays in reaching a settlement lies with Jews themselves, said several Jewish leaders.
George Ban, a lawyer whose mother survived the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland, said an estimated one-third of Hungary’s Holocaust survivors died during the drawn-out talks.
“Six thousand to 10,000 old people died, people who should have gotten some benefit from this, while Jewish community leaders argued about who should sit at the head of the table,” he said. “It is not fair to blame the delays in dealing with this problem on the back of the Hungarian government, when the problems are at least as deep among the other parties.”