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Luxembourg's Jewish community seeks payment, recognition for WWII
JTA / August 16, 2006

By Larry Luxner

LUXEMBOURG — Visitors to Luxembourg's modern city history museum on Rue du Saint-Espirit might be surprised to find Torah scrolls, Havdalah spice boxes, silver Shabbat candles and other Jewish ritual objects on display in glass cases.

After all, this wealthy little country in the heart of Europe has only 1,000 Jews. And ever since World War II, when the Nazis nearly decimated its Jewish community, Jews here have kept a low profile.

But lately, that community has begun demanding answers — and unspecified amounts of compensation — for the heirs of Jews whose assets were seized by the German occupiers and their accomplices.

In fact, a recent exhibit at Luxembourg's Musée d'Historie, entitled "Le Grand Pillage," is part of a new awareness in Luxembourg that the country has never really come to terms with its past.

"In 2002, Luxembourg decided to set up a commission to look into the fate of material losses during the war," said human-rights lawyer François Moyse, a prominent member of Luxembourg's Consistoire Israelite, or Jewish community.

Moyse told JTA that just before the outbreak of World War II, some 4,000 Jews were living in Luxembourg. About half of them were refugees from neighboring Germany.

In 1940, Nazi troops invaded the country and ordered its Jews to leave. All except 700 were able to escape, but those who remained were deported to concentration camps, mainly Therezienstadt. Of those deportees, only a handful survived the war.

Moyse said that in 1959, Luxembourg received 18 million Deutschemarks from Germany as compensation for its Jewish citizens.

"For sure, some Jews have never been compensated for their suffering," said the lawyer, one of four Jews on the 25-member commission. "These were foreign Jews, and only Luxembourg Jews were entitled to compensation by the Luxembourg government. The commission was supposed to make recommendations. But it's been over three years and there hasn't even been an interim report."

Luxembourg's Jewish community was established in the early 1800s, during the occupation of Napoleon. Moyse said that officially, the country has 600 Jews, but he believes the number is close to twice that much. About 80% of them live in the capital city, also known as Luxembourg, with a much smaller community located in the nearby town of Esch-sur-Alzette.

With only 450,000 people nestled into its mostly mountainous 999 square miles, Luxembourg is Europe's smallest country — if you exclude the "microstates" of Andorra, Liechtenstein, Monaco, San Marino and the Vatican.

French and German are the predominant languages, and the country hosts large numbers of expatriates due to its status as a financial center and home to EU institutions such as the European Investment Bank and the European Court of Justice.

Boulangerie Philip is Luxembourg's only kosher grocery, serving the 30 or so lodal families who observe the laws of kashrut. Located a few blocks from the main railway station, the supermarket sells matzo-ball soup mix from Israel, Chanukah candles from Belgium and frozen kosher meat from France.

The boulangerie is an easy 15-minute walk to the country's main synagogue at 45 Avenue Monterey, built in 1953 to replace the previous shul destroyed by the Nazis during World War II. Services follow a modern Orthodox ritual and are conducted in French and Hebrew by Moroccan-born Joseph Sayagh, the first Sephardi rabbi in Luxembourg's history.

"The Jewish community used to be 100% Ashkenazi, with many families of Luxembourg origin or from neighboring regions like Trier (Germany), Arlon (Belgium) or Metz and Strasbourg (France)," said Moyse, 39. "These people joined the community and after one generation, they were considered locals. But now we have a lot of newcomers because the country is attracting new people, mainly from France."

Some of those newcomers are attracted to Or Chadash, a small Reform congregation established in 1998 by American expatriate Betty Preston.

"I missed my Judaism, and I missed the idea of celebrating and being with other Jews," said Preston, who has lived in Luxembourg since 1982 and for 10 years owned the country's only Mexican restaurant. She doesn't speak French or German, but is fluent in Dutch because she lived previously in Amsterdam.

Or Chadash, with around 35 adult members and 15 children, holds Shabbat services once a month at the local Baha'i Center, while Rosh Hashana is celebrated with honeycake and wine at the Hilton. Each year, a rabbi comes in from England to lead High Holy Day services.

Its members are all foreign expats working in Luxembourg for three or five years, and the congregation is a member of the Liberal Judaism Council. In fact, foreigners today constitute 40% of Luxembourg's population.

"There are no locals in our congregation because they're not interested. We're liberal, and they're not," Preston said. "It's not that we don't talk to each other. But we don't socialize that much. We wrote to the Israeli banks here, telling them about us and hoping to get some new members, but we never got a response. We contacted the EU also, but they never responded either."

Preston said a local Luxembourg couple recently adopted a boy from Colombia, "but because he wasn't Jewish, the established community wouldn't accept them, so they came to us. This little boy will be bar-mitzvahed in a few years."

Because of its small size, Luxembourg is one of the few countries in Europe without an Israeli Embassy. Despite the community's low profile, some Jews here have achieved prominence. One is Alain Meyer, a former vice-president of the community who is now a member of Luxembourg's Council of State. Another is Edmond Israel, former president of the Luxembourg Stock Exchange.

Thanks to its general prosperity, Luxembourg has few problems with immigrants — certainly not to the extent of neighboring France and Belgium, both of which once possessed colonies in Africa.

"There is no violent anti-Semitism in Luxembourg, but like in any country, there is some xenophobia. You might hear somebody saying something, making remarks," Moyse told JTA. "There's a kind of myth here that poor Luxembourg was overrun and annexed by the Reich, and that nearly all Luxembourgers resisted the Nazis. But some people profited from the regime. We know, for example, that antiques dealers bought a lot of items that had been owned by Jews, certainly of dubious origin."

Some of those artifacts were on display at the recent Musée d'Historie exhibit, along with a Balkan doll collection belong to Luxembourg's late Duchess Charlotte, who fled into exile in 1940 as Nazi troops overran her country.

"I'm not saying anybody here helped kill the Jews, but in Luxembourg, only one Jew was hidden. We as the Jewish community are not only interested in payments to heirs, but also in history, because this story has never been written in Luxembourg," said Moyse, who declined to speculate on the monetary value of losses or who exactly should be held accountable.

"We are not blaming anybody because that's not what we're looking for," he added. "But people had losses and must be compensated."

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