The lost claims of the exiled Czech emigre, others face struggle to regain property.

August 14, 1991|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Evening Sun Staff

Karl Dohnal, a tall, rangy, fiercely independent Czech-American, still thinks of himself as an exile after 27 years in the United States.

"Exile is my identity," Dohnal says. "I am not an immigrant. I am not a fellow countryman living overseas. I am an exile. And I feel like an exile until this very minute."

Dohnal, now 49, came out of Czechoslovakia in 1964, a 22-year-old with a degree in engineering, a boundless self-confidence and a love of Jack London, the old superman adventurer of the Far North. In America, Dohnal found the freedom and the space to emulate London that were missing for him in communist Czechoslovakia.

Dohnal has carved out a fine life for himself in America, a life he built himself like the handsome log home his family lives in near Friendship, in Anne Arundel County. But he's still part of a Czechoslovakian diaspora of perhaps 500,000. And the collapse communism threatens to isolate him even more from his homeland.

He's seeking restitution of property that the Communist regime confiscated from his father and his wife's family. He feels Czech laws discriminate against exiles and especially Czechoslovakian-born American citizens.

His problems reflect the difficulties facing exiles, refugees and emigres seeking restitution or compensation from East European countries that have ousted and discredited their communist rulers. Laws are often confusing and contradictory, if they exist at all.

Even in Germany, settlement of claims for land and property nationalized by East German communists may eventually take 25 years, according to Clemens Kochinke, a German partner in a D.C. law firm.

Kochinke, an international lawyer with a special expertise in Germany, says the German laws governing compensation and restitution are "generous."

The law may be generous, but Kochinke knows of no claim yet settled. He notes that there are already a million claims filed, most, of course, within Germany.

Just before a deadline last October, Kochinke says, he had hundreds of inquiries. He told most people they could at least start a claim without an attorney. A modest form of pro bono work, he says.

But settling claims is anything but simple. Kochinke says there is already a third generation of heirs. He cites a case he has that deals with the "aryanization" of a Jewish business by the Nazis in 1934. The East German communist government disclaimed any responsibility for Nazi actions, unlike West Germany which has settled most claims from the Nazi era.

Karl Dohnal doesn't think Czech law is at all generous. The Czech government, basically, will accept claims only from Czechs with a permanent residence in Czechoslovakia.

"If you examine closely restitution, you will find it involves only 10 percent of the property and land," he says. "It looks seemingly good on the surface, but 90 percent of the property isn't affected."

Dohnal's 82-year-old father, Karel, still lives in Prague. He's seeking return of an apartment house. He will, perhaps, get it, because he is a Czech citizen living in Czechoslovakia.

But Dohnal's mother-in-law, who sought to reclaim an apartment building and a villa outside Prague, was murdered last November. She was a victim of a crime wave more or less unleashed by the breakdown of the totalitarian discipline of communist rule.

She was killed by burglars who broke into her home. They stole only artworks salable in the international black market, Dohnal says.

Her claims are now in a sort of limbo. With her death, Dohnal's wife, Gabriela, has lost a way to ask for restitution. She's an American citizen and she's not resident in Czechoslovakia.

Because the United States doesn't allow dual citizenship, Dohnal says, the Czech restitution measure pretty much discriminates against American citizens.

"It's a tragedy," he says. "it separates our people living overseas from their homeland. And it strips the country of the tremendous value of Czech citizens worldwide."

Dohnal settled first in Jack London country: the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. He canoed alone down the 1,900 miles of the Yukon River. He cruised the Atlantic, Mediterranean and Caribbean for five years aboard a broad-beamed sailboat with his family.

"I showed the children the world before they went to school," he said.

The Dohnals sailed into Annapolis about four years ago and they've been in Anne Arundel County ever since. They've put down real roots. He operates a real estate development and investment company. The apartment houses they are trying to reclaim are typical of those in Prague, five or six stories, with three or four flats each floor. They were typically expropriated after the owner was accused of some crime against the state, Dohnal says. His father and his wife's father both spent time in jail. The apartments became part of the public housing stock.

The villa that belonged to Gabriela Dohnal's family has about 10 rooms, tennis courts and overlooks the river Moldau. Her father was a wealthy man who owned Prague's biggest office supply company -- until the communists confiscated it.

The home became what Dohnal calls a "conspiratory villa" used by the Czech shipyards for visiting delegates from the Soviet Union, and other, darker, international money transfers.

Right now, he's working with other exiles "who are trying to crack the nut of how to get our property back without giving up our U.S. citizenship."

Dohnal thinks he knows how to do it:

"It's still a villa," he says. "It still has a tennis court. It's being kept up very nicely. Just give it back!"

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