- Hans Weber
- September 26, 2023
Interview with Mr. Tomas Kraus
Tomáš Kraus has been the secretary of the Federation of Jewish Communities in the Czech Republic since 1991 . In this capacity, he built a new infrastructure for the entire organization.
It addresses the restitution of Jewish property and the compensation of Holocaust victims , both domestically and internationally.
Prague Forum– How did you decide to dedicate part of your life to the resitution of property and reparation, as long as possible, of the damages and suffering from the Holocaust?
Tomas Kraus Before the second world war the Jewish community in this country has been very important, very intellectually based, a significant part of the Czech modern society. The economical crisis from late 20ies and early 30ies did not affect the Jews of Bohemia and Moravia so much as in other parts of Europe. Czechoslovakia was the 6th most industrialized country in the world and some Jewish enterpreneurs were the founders and owners of significant part of this industry. This is, by the way, one of the reasons why the Nazis wanted to swallow this country, the Sudeten crisis was just a political excuse. The richness and wealth of the country was destroyed first by the Nazis and then by the communists.
After the Velvet Revolution we, the new leadership of the Jewish Community in this country, wanted to safe what was still possible and preserve it for next generations. At the same time we have set-up priorities in restitution of properties and compensations of Holocaust survivors.
That type of compensation existed already during the Cold War in (then) Western Germany. It was unfortunately eligible only to those survivors living in the West, as a consequence of the a doctrine, named after foreign minister Hallstein, stating that compensation in eastern Europe is a duty of East Germany. That was obviously a nonsense because the communist leadership of the German Democratic Republic portrayed the country as an anti-Nazi hero. After reunification of Germany we have pointed out to that problem and it was solved after a long and complicated negotiations, we came to an agreement only with Gerhard Schroeder when he became the Chancellor.
In the Czech Republic there are still some 200 survivors who receive a pension, whose amount depends on how long these persons have been imprisoned. The Nazis were bizzarly precise and kept registers of deportations and personal data of inmates in concentration camps, like for example Terezin. There are very accurate records of confiscations of the victims´ personal belongings or even art and real-estate. Unfortunately there is no such evidence of the murders committed by the Nazi invasion to the East – Poland, Baltic states and Soviet Union – by the Killing Squads (Einsatzgruppen).
Prague Forum You were born after the Second World War. How do you personally feel the events that have characterized the persecution of the Jews at that time ?
Tomas Kraus My both parents have been deported to concentration camps. Luckily, they survived so I was born, 9 years after the war. Our Holocaus started earlier than in other parts of Europe, here in Czechoslovakia in was in 1938 following the Munich Agreement. My parents were married before the deportation, unlike the majority of Jewish couples who married after the War who have lost their previous spouses in the camps. My father was a journalist and a writer and has written a lot about Terezin and has contributed to the dissemination of information on the Nazi persecution.
Prague Forum What was the condition of Jews during Communism?
Tomas Kraus Persecution of Jews continued also during Communism. We should not view Communist as something homogeneous. There are three different periods, the 50ies, the 60ies and the remaining 20 years of the so called normalization, after the Soviet occupation.
Persecution during the 50s is comparable to the Nazi one, with staged antisemitic trials and executions, conducted from Moscow. My father was “only” fired from his renewed positions which he had before the war at the Czechoslovak News Agency ČTK and the Czechoslovak Radio. The 60ies were the best time of the last century, including this country. My father passed before the Prague Spring but all his friends have been among the main actors of this attemp to gain freedom. Some circles still see the Prague Spring of 1968 as a Jewish Conspiracy.
During the “normalization” Jews were discriminated in a different way, they were secretly followed and observed and their access to career position was very limited. The secret police came even to use the database of the Gestapo to identify Jews. Václav Havel was not a Jew himself but many people around him were and they played an importand role in the dissident movement, culminationg with Charta 77. The Nazi discrimination was based on the theory of races, the Communist theory was based on classes, in both cases there was no space for Jews.
Prague Forum What is the state of restitution of Property to the Jews ? On a scale from 1 to 10, how much satisfied are you ?
Tomas Kraus I cannot say anything about a scale. Maybe the comparison with the half filled/half empty glass help better. The Czechoslovak state was not the perpetrator but has has benefited from Nazi confiscations since 1945. The nationalization which was another form of confiscation took many of Jewish properties and businesses, for example the Barrandov film studios. I am saying 1945, not 1948, hence before the Communist coup.
We established a Fund for Holocaust Survivors, there has been families formally not fulfilling the criteria for restitution. People born outside of Czechoslovakia, without Czechoslovak (Czech) citizenship, were not eligible for compensation.
But those properties which were not restituted remained in the ownership of the state and were privatized. And there is an enormous amount of heirless properties, those of cases where entire families were murdered by the Nazis and there was nobody to claim their property back.
Prague Forum Recently a 96 years old lady, who has worked as a secretary in a concentration camp, has been taken to a Court in Germany. Do you think it makes sense to prosecute, after 76 years, a person who was 20 at the time of the facts , has probably mostly executed orders and was probably exposed to Anti Jewish propaganda since her childhood?
Tomas Kraus Every case is very individual. This lady was so young, she did most probably not commit real crimes. But there is a parallel in this country, a judge who tried Milada Horakova and sent her to death. These cases should not be used to punish the specific individuals when they are 90 plus. But they should represent a memento for the future generations who must understand that certain actions are punishable and punished. Behavioural borders. People in their 90s who committed crimes when they were , say 40, should be stanfing trial, though the trial should be mainly against the regime they were serving.
Prague Forum Do Jews around the world consider Israel as a sort of ”second homeland” ?
Tomas Kraus It really depends on the individual. It is not a coincidence that in our country the center of Zionism has been in Ostrava and not in Prague. Jews here became fully integrated in the society, unlike Silesia where they were frequently targetted by antisemites. Had it not been for the Nazis, the majority of Czech Jews would have become one of the most important segments in the society. They kept their own identity but did not feel motivated to leave the country. Indeed, at a certain point, a desire for a homeland came among European Jews, they felt they needed a place which could be “their place”. In general European Jews go to Israel if they feel under threat. Recently, I mean a few years before the pandemic, quite a significant number of French Jews left for Israel because of local anti-Semitism.