Marylander's claim fights ghosts of Romania past


When Jacqueline Waldman arrived in a Romanian town on the Black Sea four years ago, she had no trouble locating the ornate Italian villa her father built in 1938.

The Baltimore County woman discovered no other building in the seaport like her Jewish father's Venetian-style home, which was confiscated by Romania's Nazi-aligned government, and later the communists, more than half a century ago.

Now she wants it back.

But Waldman's attempts to reclaim the villa, used as a vacation home for soldiers, have been unsuccessful, despite rulings in her favor by three Romanian courts.

Today, her Maryland congressman, Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin of Baltimore, plans to present a letter to Romanian President Emil Constantinescu, asking him to order the government to stop fighting Waldman's claim and return the property to her, as her late father's only heir.

Cardin is scheduled to be in the presence of Constantinescu while attending a conference of the Helsinki Commission in Bucharest, the Romanian capital.

Cardin, a member of the commission, which monitors human rights violations, said he hopes to use Waldman's case to spotlight the claims of thousands of former Romanians whose properties were confiscated by the former Nazi and communist regimes.

"Mrs. Waldman's case is so unusual because she's won it in the courts and now they're just blocking it," he said in an interview before leaving for Bucharest.

For Waldman, 53, a chemistry instructor at Goucher College, her fight to reclaim the villa is a more personal crusade on behalf of her father, Leon Vlodinger, who fled the house in 1940 when he heard the Nazis were after him.

"It's a principle, to redress the pain he suffered and the hurt he felt. He died a broken person," she said this week during an interview in her home in northwest Baltimore County.

During the 1930s, she said, her father imported fruit from Palestine. He traveled across Europe, falling in love with Italian design and architecture.

Back in his Romanian homeland, in the town of Constanza, he built the large, three-story villa - about 3,600 square feet, with a view of the sea across the street. It had curved balconies graced with ornate iron filigree, and fixtures and furniture from Italy and France.

Then, in 1940, Waldman said, "somebody gave him a tip that if he values his life, he'd better get out."

Her father fled west to Bucharest, where he worked as an accountant and met her mother. They survived, not only the Nazi government, but the subsequent communist regime. They lived in a two-room apartment - the only Jews in the 12-unit building - until they emigrated to Israel in 1962.

The day they left Romania, Waldman was 15. She remembers the kindness of the neighbors who came to the train station to bid farewell to her family. In recent years, they have urged Waldman to reclaim her father's villa.

"I started with a lot of encouragement from my Romanian, non-Jewish friends, who said the laws have changed and there's a possibility of reclaiming it now," she said.

But before she could begin her legal fight, Waldman - who moved to the United States in 1966 and became a U.S. citizen - had to first regain her Romanian citizenship.

She did that in 1996, while also remaining a U.S. citizen.

"I felt very mixed. I consider myself an American citizen completely, but I felt vindication because Romanian citizenship was stripped from us," she said.

She hired a Romanian lawyer, who won her case, first in the lowest local court in October 1997, then in two appeals courts in 1998 and 1999.

Now, she faces a final appeal in the country's highest court, the Supreme Court of Justice, in Bucharest in September.

Although the lower courts have ruled to allow Waldman to reclaim the property, the government, which occupies the villa, continues to fight her. Yesterday, Stefan Maier, press attache for the Romanian Embassy in Washington, said that the officials challenging Waldman in court are simply following current laws that may be changed as soon as this fall.

The proposed changes moving through the Romanian legislature would return property to an original owner, but give current inhabitants a number of years to move out and compensation for improvements they made.

"This is a process that the government has taken seriously," Maier said.

Nevertheless, in Waldman's case, the government continues to fight her claims based on laws abandoned decades ago.

In one appeal, Cardin's letter to the Romanian president notes, Waldman's claim was denied because the laws under which "the property was originally confiscated - Holocaust-era aryanization laws - were at the time valid laws which should be upheld today."

That argument made Waldman angry. "That's when I started to fight in earnest. That's not the Romania I know," she said, explaining that she feels a deep love for her native land and a special bond with her former neighbors.

Others found the government's argument "most disturbing," considering that it claims to be democratic, said Maureen Walsh, general counsel to the Helsinki Commission.

Despite that government's promises of reforms, many properties confiscated long ago remain in the hands of officials who are reluctant to give them up, Walsh said.

Even if Waldman wins her case, it could be years before she gains control of the villa. She could be awarded the property, only to be told that she has to rent it back to the current tenants for a few dollars a year, said Mihai Vinatoru, a Romanian emigrM-i living in New Jersey, who heads the nonprofit Romanian-American Committee for Private Property Inc.

Vinatoru, who has tracked more than 2,000 claims by people who had their property confiscated before the collapse of communism in 1989, said it might be difficult for Waldman to evict the tenants, unless she bought another property to which they could relocate.

Vinatoru, who left Romania 32 years ago, said he reclaimed his own property in Bucharest by paying the tenants $10,000 to move out. "You have absolutely no justice in that country," he said.

Waldman says she will continue her fight, even if she has to go to the European Court.

But regaining the villa means more to her than property rights.

When she saw the house for the first time in 1996, she said, "I was almost in touch with my father. I had lost him so long ago. I finally had contact with him again."

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