Feature 06 Dec 17

Croatians Struggle to Regain Property Confiscated in WWII

Holocaust survivors and other owners of property confiscated by the Croatian WWII fascist Ustasa movement and then nationalised by Communist Yugoslavia are still fighting legal battles to get compensation.

Sven Milekic BIRN Zagreb
Paul Schreiner's house, where a kindergarten is now located. Photo courtesy of Jelena Popovic.

Paul Schreiner, who survived the Holocaust by hiding in a Croatian village while his closest relatives were killed in concentration camps, has spent over 12 years locked in legal battles to get the family home in Zagreb back.

“It went from one [official] body to another, then to court, which returned the process to the start,” Schreiner, now 89, told BIRN.

He has now received compensation, but only for part of the property.

Currently living in the Italian city of Novara, Schreiner was born into a family of Jewish ceramics producers from Zagreb, and was brought up at his family’s big house on Gjuro Dezelic Drive in the centre of the city.

In April 1941, the Kingdom of Yugoslavia crumbled under attack from Nazi Germany and its allies, and the Croatian fascist Ustasa movement took power. In their Nazi puppet state, the Independent State of Croatia, NDH, the Ustasa immediately began the widespread persecution of Serbs, Jews and Roma.

The Ustasa and the German Gestapo detainerd all of Schreiner’s family and transporting them to Auschwitz and the Ustasa concentration camp at Jasenovac in Croatia, where they were murdered.

Schreiner survived the war by hiding with a Croat family in the village of Mace, north of Zagreb. While he was gone, the family home was confiscated by the Ustasa. This was a part of a process known as the ‘Aryanisation of property’, in which buildings owned by Serbs, Jews and Roma were given to ethnic Croats according to the NDA’s racial laws, passed in 1941 and modelled on Nazi legislation.

At the end of WWII, Communist Yugoslavia gave back Schreiner his house in 1945, only to nationalise it soon afterwards – part of a far-reaching drive to reshape the class structure of society by expropriating buildings from people with large or multiple properties.

Schreiner emigrated to Israel in the 1950s, and his case for restitution remained unresolved – until, in 1996, Croatia introduced a special law to compensate owners whose property was nationalised during Yugoslav times.

Under this law, a few state bodies were and still are dealing with providing compensation for real estate and companies that were nationalised by the former Yugoslav regime.

The Restructuring and Sales Centre, a state body that manages company stock owned by the state, along with its predecessors, the Agency for Managing State Property and the Croatian Fund for Privatisation, compensated 1,348 former owners of real estate and companies up to mid-October this year.

The former owners were given stocks and shares in 207 companies with the total nominal value of 89 million euros, BIRN has learned.

Another state body, the Fund for the Compensation of Seized Property, compensates former owners with financial payments and state bonds for all property that cannot be returned.

The Fund told BIRN that since its founding in 1999, until October this year, it had given out more than a million bonds, worth 214.6 million euros, to 23,467 people. In financial terms, it has also paid out 44 million euros to the former owners.

‘Impossible to return’

Schreiner visiting the kindergarten in the documentary 'Housing Issue'.

Schreiner’s lawyer, Iva Zuvanic Stambuk, said that his request for the return of his property is still only partially resolved.

That meant Schreiner was compensated financially for the real estate that was once the front yard of his family home; the reason being that a new building had been erected on the site in the 1960s, and so the property could not be returned to him in its original state.

This decision came into force on in December 2014 and became final in April 2016.

“He will be paid for the property - the land on which the building was built, because it was impossible to return it,” Zuvanic Stambuk told BIRN.

She further explained that her client is still seeking a way to regain the building itself, which was Schreiner’s family house and which now contains a kindergarten.

“The Interior Ministry is the owner of the building, and it now rents the space to a kindergarten,” Zuvanic Stambuk explained.

In the documentary ‘Housing Issue’, directed by Silvana Mendjusic and screened by the public broadcaster Croatian Radio-Television, HRT in February, Schreiner said it felt somewhat easier for him that his house was being used as a kindergarten.

“I am glad that children [are here]… Because they are creating life. That is surely the best thing that could happen to my soul. If they put offices here or sold apartments, it would be awful. But like this, it’s very good,” Schreiner said in the documentary while visiting the kindergarten for the first time since the 1940s.

However, unlike many other Croatian Jews seeking the return of their confiscated property, Schreiner had one advantage – the house was taken directly from him by the Yugoslav authorities.

The vast majority of the property once owned by Jews in Croatia was nationalised from owners who received it as part of the ‘Aryanisation’ process.

Under the law, owners from whom Yugoslavia took property can be compensated. Additionally, no Croatian law or the country’s constitution recognises the NDH as Croatia’s predecessor, while socialist Yugoslavia is considered its legal predecessor.

This means that owners of property expropriated by the Yugoslav regime can be compensated, but those whose property was expropriated by the NDH cannot. If a house was expropriated by the NDH, then expropriated again by the Yugoslav regime, the person who lost the house under the Yugoslav regime is the one who can get compensation.

This issue was also raised during a visit to Zagreb in March by the US State Department envoy for Holocaust issues, Tom Yazdgerdi, who said that progress on helping Jews to reclaim their property was “rather slow”.

Schreiner’s case is somewhat different, because Yugoslavia returned his house in 1945, only to nationalise it soon afterwards.

“Taking into account his age at the time [16], the fact that the property was taken from him personally makes his case really a unique one. He was just a child, and this was because his entire family was killed,” Zuvanic Stambuk pointed out.

The fact that greatly complicated his case was that the official decision showing that the property had been returned to Schreiner by Yugoslavia after being taken by the NDH was never recorded in the land registry. Because of this, the other decision under which the Yugoslav state nationalised the property was also never recorded in the registry.

This was successfully resolved before the court, as Zuvanic Stambuk managed to find the documents in the state archives.

Now the first-instance case for returning the house to Schreiner has been heard by the Zagreb city authorities, whose decision will soon be issued.

Should an appeal be lodged against the first-instance decision, second-instance hearings will take place at the Justice Ministry, and then the case could even end up before the Administrative Court, and finally the Higher Administrative Court.

Schreiner's lawyer managed to complete the case for compensation for the land - where a building now stands - after years of appeals from the state. However, she is still awaiting the city of Zagreb’s decision on the return of the house, where the kindergarten is now located.

“So far, the state has only prolonged the case, so to speak, with its appeals against [paying] compensation for the land,” said Zuvanic Stambuk.

“It appealed against the city’s decision, as well as the decision of the ministry, causing the procedure to be continued before the administrative court,” she added.

The case of the Esplanade Hotel

Hotel Esplanade. Photo: Flickr/Christopher Lancaster.

Amid the mass of cases in which owners are trying to get back their property, the one that attracted the most attention was the case demanding the return of shares in the famous Zagreb Esplanade Hotel.

A true landmark in Zagreb, this luxurious hotel was built in 1925 next to the main railway station, hosting travellers from the famous Orient Express, the train connecting Paris and Istanbul.

News site Telegram reported in October that after 20 years, Croatian courts decided in favour of Edina Mujicic, whose father, wealthy tradesman Tahir Mujicic, bought 18.75 per cent of the hotel in 1944, during Ustasa rule.

In 1945, Tahir Mujicic was taken away by the Yugoslav authorities, and his whereabouts have remained unknown to the day – he was probably executed, and he was legally declared dead in 1950. Then year after he disappeared, Yugoslavia nationalised his share of the Esplanade Hotel.

By 2007, Edina Mujicic had managed to receive compensation for apartments her father owned in Zagreb and in the eastern town of Slavonski Brod, but the process of seeking compensation for his share in the Esplanade took longer because of multiple appeals by the state attorney’s office.

The state attorney’s office complained that the ownership of Tahir Mujicic’s share in the hotel was confiscated due to an alleged verdict declaring him an enemy of the state. However, no one could trace the verdict in the state archives.

Edina Mujicic died in spring this year, and never got to hear the final decision about the ownership of the hotel.

Her nephews will now be compensated instead of her. Their lawyer, Miroslav Vlasic, told BIRN that they will receive “stocks from companies that are in the [state] Restructuring and Sales Centre’s portfolio”.

“The verdict in my clients’ favour was passed, but what we’re still waiting for is [the verdict] to be implemented. I can’t speculate when they will receive the stocks,” Vlasic said, adding that they cannot choose the stocks they will receive in return for their share in the hotel.

But while Tahir Mujicic’s nephews will ultimately receive their stocks, for others, the seemingly endless legal tussles to get compensation for property seized so many decades ago continues.

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