Survivors heirs seeking compensation for Croatian building

In many ways, Agatha Arnstein’s story is sadly familiar: A Holocaust survivor loses family and property during World War II, settles in Israel and at the end of her life tries to get compensation for what she left behind — only to die before her efforts bear fruit.

But in one way, at least, Arnstein’s story is unusual: Her property ended up in the hands of the U.S. government.

Now her heirs are appealing to the United States, as well as the Croatian authorities who originally took her building, to recover some of the money to which they claim they are entitled. So far, they have met only dead ends.

The property in question is a five-story apartment building in the heart of old Zagreb, today the Croatian capital. It had belonged to Arnstein’s aunt before the war, and she left it to her two surviving nieces upon her death.

After the Shoah, Arnstein decided to move to Israel. The government — at that time communist Yugoslavia — told her she could get the documents necessary to leave the country only if she gave up her right to the property.

In 1951, the Yugoslavian government decided to give the building as a gift to the United States for use as its consulate. (It gave Arnstein’s sister, who had stayed in Croatia, other property in exchange for the building.)

As best as Arnstein’s only child, Marina Umschweif, and her lawyer, Avraham Doron, can make out, the U.S. government never paid any money to obtain the building, nor any rent to occupy it. But American officials did seem to make a bundle on the sale of the property a couple of years ago to the French, who now have their embassy there.

According to Croatian news reports at the time, France paid some $2.5 million for the historic building.

Doron claimed that at least some of that money belongs to his client.

“The Americans got a present that was actually taken illegally from Jewish refugees. They got it for free and they made a profit on it,” he said.

Doron contacted the U.S. Embassy in Israel, which indicated the case would be referred to the State Department. He said he was still waiting for a reply from Washington.

In the meantime, he sent letters to the 11 Jewish U.S. senators. Of them, Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) was the only one to reply. She wrote Doron that she had contacted the State Department on the family’s behalf, and was told that “while we sympathize with the facts described in Ms. Arenstein’s [sic] letter, the United States cannot be of assistance in this matter.” Instead, Arnstein was directed to contact the Israeli and Croatian authorities.

Doron indicated that if the American government won’t be moved by the “moral” power of his case, he would pursue a lawsuit. “The State Department is very nice,” Doron said. “But they tell you — in nice words — ‘go to hell.'”

Doron said the Croatian government had also been unmoved by the family’s efforts. A lawyer in Croatia spent several months on the case but came to the conclusion that Arnstein wouldn’t be able to recover any money because the property had long been under American control.

Doron said the response from Jewish organizations hadn’t been much better. Only the World Jewish Congress replied promptly and promised to take action.

For Arnstein, though, that last chance has already expired. She died in October at 88 without having seen a penny from the property.