|Mozus Berkovich, 92, holds a picture of his parents, who were killed during the Nazi occupation of Latvia in 1941. He is seeking $190 million for the property that once belonged to his family. (Essdras M Suarez/Globe Staff)|
Native of Latvia seeks Holocaust justice
Newton man won’t give up fight
Last year, when Eugene Levin returned to his native Latvia, he found a chilling, hand-drawn diagram of houses in the small town where his ancestors once lived.
The map, hanging in a museum, was sketched more than 70 years ago. Many of the houses, including one that belonged to his great-grandparents, were marked with an “X’’: these were the homes of Jewish residents. On July 18, 1941, nearly all of those families, including children, were murdered.
Levin's grandfather, Mozus Berkovich, survived because he was away, studying dentistry in Riga. Berkovich, 92, now lives in Newton and is seeking compensation for the property that once belonged to his family.
For the past 20 years, since Latvia gained independence, Berkovich has been seeking to reclaim rights to his family's property under a new law returning property that had been seized over decades of Soviet control.
But he has been unsuccessful.
He has tried to get the property back through local officials in his hometown of Akniste but was denied. In 2002, he took his case to court in Latvia. It made it to the country’s highest court but again he lost.
"They are determined not to give it back," Levin said.
He went to the European Court of Human Rights, but was told he should seek compensation for the property through Latvia. Last year, he filed a claim with the Latvian prime minister’s office asking for $190 million in Holocaust compensation.
The Latvian Embassy in Washington responded to questions about Berkovich's case by e-mail. Vineta Mekone, the embassy's political counselor, said that although Berkovich has filed paperwork seeking property rights to the two-story brick building since 1992, including a 1946 declaration from the town’s executive council that his father owned the house, Berkovich has not submitted documents that confirm his property rights.
One Latvian court that ruled against his case found that the executive council declaration only lists the owner of the building, not the land, and does not give an address. Since the deadline for land claims was in 1996, it is too late for Berkovich to file these documents, Mekone wrote.
Courts could reinstate the property rights only if no one had acquired the land rights — and the land that Berkovich is seeking now belongs to Latvian Mail, Mekone wrote, noting Berkovich had not asked the Latvian courts for compensation for the property.
After the massacres, which killed nearly all of the town's Jewish residents, Berkovich never returned to live in Akniste.
"Why should I leave it to people who basically robbed me?" he asks, as his grandson translates. Berkovich speaks little English.
Levin and Berkovich say their lawyer provided documents showing he had ownership rights to the property.
Berkovich said that Latvian nationalists, not Germans, killed his family and other Jewish residents. Since Berkovich grew up in Akniste, a small town, he still remembers the names of those who killed his relatives, he said.
Mekone said Nazi and Soviet occupiers confiscated real estate, costing Latvia one-third of its population through “foreign aggression,’’ deportation, and forced exile. “Latvia's period of occupation (1940-1991) left a horrific legacy for all its inhabitants," Mekone wrote.
Berkovich was the only one of 19 relatives — including his parents, brother, two sisters, uncles, cousins, and aunts — who lived.
“The only reason he is still alive is because he was in Riga,’’ Levin said.
Berkovich's father tried to save one of his sisters by hiding her at a neighbor's farm. But the young girl was still discovered and killed.
Berkovich has only three pictures of his family.
Levin grew up in Riga and remembers traveling to Akniste with his family on July 18 to commemorate the killings. In 1989, his family immigrated to America.
US Representative Barney Frank has written to the US Department of State and the Latvian embassy, asking for help with Berkovich's case.
“I believe it is vitally important that we continue to raise this issue at the highest levels,’’ the Newton Democrat wrote.
Frank asked the Latvian embassy to urge authorities to revisit Berkovich's case, and, at a minimum, publicly acknowledge that the house belonged to Berkovich and his family.
The State Department said the US embassy in Riga is aware of Berkovich’s case and is monitoring it closely.
“Holocaust restitution is an important step towards historical justice and reconciliation,’’ the State Department said in a statement. Latvia is a party to the 2009 Terezin Declaration on Holocaust Assets and Related Issues, in which it committed to address still-unresolved issues related to the restitution of property.
“Latvia has largely completed the task of restituting or compensating for the loss of Jewish private property, but it continues to work to complete the unfinished business of restituting communal property,” according to the State Department statement.
“The Latvian Jewish community, with the help of international groups, is working with the Latvian Government on a new legislative proposal to address these issues. The United States Government supports these efforts.’’
Kathleen Burge can be reached at email@example.com.