UNITED RESTITUTION ORGANIZATION (URO), legal aid society for claimants outside Germany for restitution and compensation. During World War II 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. Failing to agree on a uniform law, separate Ordinances on Restitution in each of the 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. When 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.
The United Restitution Organization was founded in 1948 as a legal aid society, to help claimants of limited means, living outside Germany, to recover both in restitution and compensation what was due to them. 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. The URO was sponsored by the British Foreign Office as a qualified and responsible public service to undertake the preparation and pleading of claims in return for a modest fee in case of success. The administrative center, established in London, was headed from 1949 until his death in 1964 by Secretary-General Hans Reichmann, a German-Jewish civil servant. The number of clients soon reached 100,000, and rose in the peak period of activity to 250,000. For the first five years the URO was financed by Jewish voluntary bodies concerned with refugees: the
for Palestine, the
*American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee
, and the
*Central British Fund
for relief and rehabilitation.
When the Government of Israel and the
on Jewish Material Claims against Germany (formed in 1952), together demanded reparations, restitution, and compensation, the latter, 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 the URO. A central office was opened in Frankfurt, and Benjamin Ferencz, an American lawyer and former head of the Jewish Restitution Successor Organization, became the first director general, succeeded in 1955 by Kurt May, a German lawyer. In 1958 the URO maintained 29 branch offices in 15 countries including South America and Australia; and had a staff of 1,000, of whom 200 were legal officers. The original estimate of the liability of the German government for compensation claims, i.e., excluding restitution, was DM 7,000,000,000 ($1,750,000,000). After the final legislation in 1966, it rose to DM 45,000,000,000 ($11,250,000,000). Ten percent of the claimants are clients of the URO. By 1967 the URO recovered for its clients over DM 2,000,000,000 ($500,000,000) and with the fees from claims which were successful, it has repaid the sums advanced by the Claims Conference and other philanthropic bodies. Later, the amount recovered for the clients and the fees paid declined considerably.
The total sum recovered includes compensation for Jews who resided in the Eastern Zone or Eastern Sector of Berlin, as the federal German government took over the liability which
was rejected by the Soviet authorities and the East German government. It also includes compensation for the confiscation of movable property, furniture, jewelry, securities, and bank accounts of Jews living in countries occupied by the Nazi armies, provided the claimant could prove that the property had been transferred to Germany. Since the Nazi bureaucratic system kept careful record of the Nazi spoliation, the research staff of the URO was able to trace it. The URO is a legal British nonprofit organization limited by guarantee since 1954. The organization did not take up the claims of Jewish and other victims of the Nazi Holocaust living in any part of Germany. It had offices in Frankfurt, Berlin, Munich, Cologne, and Hanover. At the peak of its operations the URO maintained 29 branch offices in 15 countries. Over the years it assisted more than 200,000 claimants.
By the end of 1965 the filing deadlines under the principal restitution and compensation laws expired. The scope of the URO's activities began to gradually diminish. Currently (2006) the URO maintains six offices located in Israel, the United States, Canada, and Germany.