interpretive guide to the united restitution organization claims files

History of the United Restitution Organization

The historical overview presented below is intended to provide a context for the documents explained on this site, and should not be taken as an authoritative history of this complex subject. We recommend that you consult some of the sources recommended in the bibliography page for additional information.

Nazi persecution of the Jews during W.W.II

The extent of the losses sustained by victims of the Nazi occupation during the Second World War cannot be adequately summed up in this limited space. In the words of Norman Bentwich, former URO Director for Great Britain:

The systematic and ruthless spoliation by the Nazi regime of the Jewish population in Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia before the outbreak of World War II, and of the Jewish population in the countries occupied by the German forces during the war - Holland and Belgium, France and Greece, Poland, Hungary and Rumania - is unparalleled in history. It was done with that appearance of legality and with the thoroughness (Gruendlichkeit) which marked German enterprise of every kind, whether it was the staff orders for a military campaign, or the instructions to the Gestapo for the commission of crimes against humanity. The principle was to take from the Jews every scrap of material possession and the means of subsistence. Step by step all their movable and immovable property was confiscated and they were excluded from all professional and economic life. During the war they were used as slave labour till they dropped, and then were done to death. When the extermination programme culminated in the gas chambers, the last bit of clothing, the dentures and the hair of the victims were duly collected and listed (Bentwich, 1968, p. 7).

Precedents for the notion of restitution

Although the beginnings of the URO go back to 1948, the idea of restitution was conceived even earlier during the war, when reports of the confiscation of Jewish property in Germany and later in occupied territories reached the western world. In consequence, in May 1943 the Allied Governments in London published a declaration against acts of confiscation in all Nazi occupied territories. The Allies declared they would obtain restitution of the property of Nazi victims which had been confiscated, taken or sold under duress; and financial compensation for their suffering - loss of liberty, health, profession and employment, and loss of parents and family.

Lawyers such as Dr. George Weiss found precedents applicable to the World War II situation in the provisions of a treaty between the Allied Powers and Turkey at the end of World War I, concerning the confiscation and restitution of property of the Armenians expelled from Turkey. They also studied reactions to earlier examples of spoliation, such as the confiscation of the property of Huguenots in France in 1666 which was declared illegal by a special law in 1790 and which provided for the restitution of confiscated property. Even earlier, in 1648, the Treaty of Westphalia that ended the 30 Years War contained provisions for the restitution of "all Estates of the Holy Roman Empire who had suffered prejudice and damage" (Stahr, 1974.)

Context of the post war restitution process

As the Allies were unable to agree on a uniform law, separate Ordinances on Restitution in each of the Western occupied zones were enacted, initially by the Americans (1948), and followed two years later by the English and French. A decree governing the Western Sectors of Berlin was promulgated about the same time. After the Western Allies agreed to recognize the sovereignty of the German Federal Republic in 1952, they stipulated that the Bonn government must pass a federal law on compensation at least as favorable to the refugees as any provincial law in force. This led to the creation of the Fedeeral Indemnification Law known by its initials as the "BEG."

John Stahr, the Canadian Director of URO in the 1960s described the circumstances surrounding the creation of this law in these words:

The initial principle of restitution (i.e. the return of confiscated property to its rightful owner, or compensation for it where restitution is not possible because property was destroyed or lost) proved insufficient when the atrocities committed against the Jews of Europe by the Nazi Government became known after the war. This was recognized by the Government of the German Federal Republic and the BEG (Indemnification Law) contains legislation dealing with the so-called personal damages suffered by the victims of Nazi persecution, i.e. loss of life, health, or liberty. Most of the claims transacted by the URO in Canada are concerned with these personal damages (Stahr, 1974, p. 4).

As this quote indicates, after the BEG was passed the URO's mission was broadened from restitution to indemnification. Indemnification is the attempt to redress unjust damages or losses through restitution or compensation. Restitution takes place when damages or losses are indemnified by replacing, returning, or repairing exactly that which was lost. The return of an artwork looted by the Nazi to its rightful Jewish owner is an example of restitution. In contrast, compensation takes place when the damage or loss suffered is indemnified by giving the victim all or part of its value, such as a pension paid to a holocaust survivor who was imprisoned in a concentration camp.

Creation of the URO

The United Restitution Office was founded in 1948 as a legal aid society, to help claimants of limited means, living outside Germany, to recover what was due to them in both restitution and compensation. Legal offices were set up for this purpose, staffed by expert Jewish and European lawyers in the countries of refuge and in Germany itself and later in Austria.

URO offices were established when it was recognized that a vast majority of prospective claimants, newcomers to a strange land, would not have the means to submit their claims through private lawyers and would therefore be easy prey to individuals who might use their mandate and the helplessness of the claimants to exact heavy payment for their services. Also, there were very few lawyers who were conversant with the very complicated Indemnification Law.

Distribution of URO branch offices

For the first five years URO was financed by Jewish voluntary bodies concerned with refugees: the Jewish Agency for Palestine, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, and the Central British Fund for relief and rehabilitation. After the formation of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims against Germany in 1952, this organization and the Government of Israel together demanded reparations, restitution, and compensation. The Claims Conference, as the representative of the Jews in the Diaspora, advanced sums from funds which it received from the German government and took over financial responsibility for URO.

The URO Central Office was located in Frankfurt-on-Main, Germany, and regional offices were established in Berlin, Frankfurt, Hanover, Koeln and Munich. Point 16 of Article III of the third amendment to the BEG states that the United Restitution Organization is authorized (without restrictions applicable to other organizations) to represent claimants in all matters governed by the Indemnification Law.

URO offices were established in Germany, Canada, the U.S.A., Israel, France, Great Britain, Australia, Belgium, Sweden and several South American Countries. In countries where the number of Jewish refugees did not warrant the establishment of URO offices, special departments were attached to existing Jewish organizations.

The United Restitution Organization in Canada

In Canada, the URO was founded in 1953 under the aegis of the Canadian Jewish Congress, with head office in Montreal, offices in Toronto and Winnipeg, and facilities in Vancouver to assist applicants with the documentation of their claims. The first years in Canada were financed by the Claims Conference because the URO had no income until about 1956.The funds advanced by the Claims Conference were administered by the Canadian Jewish Congress which also gave support by providing the URO with office space and clerical staff.

URO offices in Vancouver and Winnipeg were closed in the 1970s. The Montreal office remained open until 2000, after which the still-active cases were transferred to the Toronto office. As of the time, in 2005, the only United Restitution Office in Canada is in Toronto, although survivors in other cities can consult with caseworkers based in other organizations (as described on our Links and references page.)


Bentwich, Norman. The United Restitution Organization, 1948-1968, London (1968)

Encyclopedia Judaica. Keter Publishing House Jerusalem Ltd., Jerusalem, Israel (1972) The full text of this article is available through the website of the Simon Weisenthal Center.

Robinson, Nehemiah. "Reparations and Restitution in International Law as Affecting Jews," Jewish Yearbook of International Law 1 (1948)

Stahr, Dr. John, Executive Director of URO Canada. "United Restitution Organization:Twentieth Anniversary", in Congress Bulletin, Canadian Jewish Congress, (February/March 1974: p.4.)