A group of Czechs whose ancestors once settled a region in today’s Ukraine, only to come back empty-handed after the Second World War, are now asking the Czech government for help. They would like to get at least partial compensation for their long-gone property. But Czech officials say they cannot help, so the case might end up at the European Court for Human Rights.
Driven by dreams of prosperity, some 16,000 Czechs left the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy in the 1870s and 80s to settle in the rural region of Volhynia, then part of the Russian Empire. They were granted generous tax breaks and did not have to serve in the Tsar’s army, and their communities prospered. By the beginning of WWI, the Czechs had built breweries, steelworks, mills and cement factories in their new home.
But the area changed hands several times before it was incorporated in the Soviet Union in 1939. The new rulers had little respect for the industrious settlers and took away most of their property. Those who did not end up in the Gulags were allowed to return to Czechoslovakia in the late 1940s, and settled parts of the former German-speaking areas of the country, whose inhabitants were expelled to Germany and Austria.
Some 800 of their descendants have now started a campaign to get at least partial compensation for their farms and other possessions taken away by the Soviet authorities during WWII. Jaromíra Němcová is a member of an association of people whose property in Volhynia was confiscated.
“Immediately after the occupation [by Soviet troops in 1939], those people were declared bourgeois and kulaks. Their property was confiscated, and they ended up in prison and their families were usually sent to Siberia. Until today, a great majority of these people received no compensation whatsoever.”
In 2004 came a ruling by the European Court for Human Rights which gave hope to Jaroslava Němcová and others. The court upheld a compensation claim by a Polish citizen and ordered his country’s government to pay damages to 80,000 Poles who were forced out of today’s Belarus and Ukraine.
But Czech officials say there is nothing they can do in this case. Czech settlers in Volhynia were not longer citizens of Czechoslovakia. And when they returned, most of them received modest settlements for whatever personal property they left behind. Ms Němcová, who was born in Volhynia in 1945, says they their case might end up at the European Court for Human Rights, too. Jaromíra Němcová again.
“We’d be really happy if our officials at least cooperated with us on the issue. We have tried talking to pretty much everyone by now because we really feel we suffered an injustice. We are considering putting all these documents together and approaching the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. I really don’t know what to do.”
Meanwhile, Czech Prime Minister Petr Nečas advised Ms Němcová and others to file individual lawsuits against Poland and Ukraine, while the Czech Foreign Ministry noted that the international situation was not very favourable to advance such claims. The Ukrainian president has not answered their petition at all.
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