The thriving pre-war Jewish community of Latvia suffered enormous losses during the Holocaust. Approximately 95,000 Jewish people lived in Latvia before the war. About 9,500 Jewish people currently reside in the country.
The private property claims process covered property seized beginning in 1940, had no citizenship or restitution requirement, and municipal authorities, typically the final claims arbiters, were to provide substitute property or government vouchers if the actual property could not be returned. However, reasonable substitute property was rarely available and the short claims period and limited notification about the program prevented many former property owners from submitting claims. Additionally, Latvia has not provided restitution for heirless property.
Latvia has provided restitution for only a small number of Jewish communal properties. The Law on the Restitution of Property to Religious Organizations (1992) provided for the return to “religious” organizations of “religious” property – primarily houses of worship and related property – confiscated between 1940 and 1992. The decimation of the Jewish community during the Holocaust and limitations on Jewish religious life during the German and Soviet occupations made it more difficult for the Jewish community to establish ownership rights to communal property than was the case for major Christian churches. Additionally, the law provided for restitution to be made to the organization that owned the property or to the central authority of the religion. Because Jewish communities in Latvia did not have a central authority, there was no provision for restitution of Jewish communal property in communities that were wiped out in the Holocaust. Accordingly, the government returned only around 20 properties – mostly synagogues – and paid compensation for several others to the small religious Latvian Jewish community.
Beginning in 2003, the Latvian Council of Jewish Communities (LCJC), supported by WJRO, has sought to supplement the 1992 restitution law by adding types of communal property (other than synagogues) that could be recovered. The government and Jewish community – through the use of a special working group, which included government and Jewish representatives – agreed on proposed legislation providing for a combination of restitution (of 14 formerly Jewish owned buildings) and compensation (of 32 million lats/about $60 million) over a ten-year period to the local Jewish community. However, the parliament did not pass the draft legislation.
Subsequently, in 2008, the government established a new working group, without Jewish community representation, to evaluate the communal property restitution situation. In 2010, the working group identified approximately 80 Jewish community properties eligible for restitution. In June 2012, Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis sought another new working group of government and Jewish community representatives to create a list of Jewish community property and recommend whether the government should return the properties or pay compensation. However, Justice Minister Gaidis Berzins of the National Alliance refused to establish the working group and resigned in protest. Subsequently, Prime Minister Dombrovskis announced that future action on restitution would require parliamentary action.
In February 2016, after years of talks with the Latvian Council of Jewish Communities, assisted by WJRO, the Latvian Saeima passed legislation that restituted an initial five properties. This legislation was intended as a step toward addressing the remaining Jewish communal properties that have not been restituted.
In June 2019, legislation was introduced in the Saeima to address outstanding Jewish property claims, including remaining Jewish communal properties. The proposed law would establish a goodwill fund to be used to sustain and revitalize Jewish life in Latvia and preserve the cultural and historical heritage of Latvian Jews. The fund would also provide social and material assistance to Holocaust survivors in Latvia who currently live in other countries.
Latvia has no law for the restitution of confiscated, heirless property.
Resources and Links
ESLI Overview of Immovable Property Restitution/Compensation Regimes – Latvia
European Shoah Legacy Institute
July, 2020 – Latvia – Contents on page 100