Latvia passes long-awaited Holocaust restitution law, aims to revitalize Jewish life

Parliament approves spending $45 million over ten years on its 9,500-strong Jewish community; will provide social and material assistance to survivors

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, seen in Riga, Latvia, on February 10, 2022. (Roman Koksarov/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, seen in Riga, Latvia, on February 10, 2022. (Roman Koksarov/AP)

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

Following years of wrangling over the issue, lawmakers in 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.

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 authorizes spending 40 million euros ($45 million) over 10 years to revitalize 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.

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 to near-total destruction. The Soviet Union first seized those properties, which were then taken over by the Nazis, again nationalized by the Soviet Union and later become property of the Latvian state.

After independence in 1991, Latvia introduced laws on returning nationalized 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.

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 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 nationalized 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.

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