A hard-won homecoming

Lawsuit: After a lengthy battle with the Romanian government, a Baltimore County woman will reclaim the villa seized from her father.

December 12, 2000|By Joan Jacobson | Joan Jacobson,SUN STAFF

When Jacqueline Waldman was a young girl living in a cold-water flat in Romania, she made up a "fairy tale" in which her father would one day beat the forces of evil to reclaim his seaside villa, confiscated by Fascists in 1940 because he was a Jew.

Yesterday, she said she can hardly believe her fairy tale has come true: Sixty years later, the house her father lost will soon be hers.

Although her father has been dead for decades, Waldman, now a U.S. citizen living in Baltimore County, led a one-woman crusade to persuade the Romanian government to give her the ornate Italian villa her father built on the Black Sea in 1938.

"The story seems to be a fairy tale indeed. One with a happy ending," she said, speaking at a press conference at the Jewish Museum of Maryland with Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin.

Last month, the Romanian government decided to stop fighting Waldman's legal appeals, ending a four-year court battle in which she had won the house in three Romanian courts.

Waldman, a chemistry instructor at Goucher College, plans to leave Baltimore on Dec. 29 with her family and take possession of the villa in early January. In recent years, the house has been used as a vacation home for soldiers.

Yesterday Waldman, 53, appeared overwhelmed in telling the news, holding back tears as she spoke of her father's lost hopes of regaining his home and his livelihood after the family moved to Israel in 1962.

"It all seems to me unreal, like a fairy tale," she said. "How does a single person take on an entire government used to getting its own way?"

Cardin, a Baltimore Democrat, took up her cause in July when he presented a letter to Romanian President Emil Constantinescu, asking him to order the government to stop fighting Waldman's claims to the property in the courts. Cardin is a member of the Helsinki Commission, which monitors human rights, and was visiting Romania with a commission delegation.

Yesterday, Cardin called Waldman "a most determined and courageous person ... to reclaim a home that was stolen from her father."

Although thousands of others have been unsuccessful in reclaiming confiscated property in Romania, Cardin said he thinks the publicity helped Waldman's case. Romania's government, said Cardin, was "being hurt by this case. ... They knew Mrs. Waldman wouldn't go away."

"This is a significant victory," said Mihai A. Vinatoru, a Romanian emigre who lives in New Jersey and heads the nonprofit Romanian-American Committee for Private Property Inc.

His group has found fewer than 15 cases - out of 2,026 they are tracking - in which land was returned to former owners.

"The sad part is that more than 400,000 properties were not returned to the rightful owner in Romania," he said.

Yesterday, Waldman and Cardin stood next to an enlarged photograph of the Venetian-style villa, which has ornate iron filigree gracing its curved balconies. Waldman's father, a fruit importer, patterned the villa after ones he had seen and admired in Italy.

The villa is so unlike other buildings in the seaport town of Constanza that Waldman said she had no trouble finding it when she went looking for it in 1996.

On that visit, she was unable to enter the house. When she takes possession, probably between Jan. 8 and 10, she will step inside her father's home for the first time.

Waldman was born after her father moved to Bucharest, and married her mother. The family was unable to return to Constanza, first because of the restrictions on Jews by Romania's Nazi-aligned wartime government and later by its communist regime.

The family remained in Bucharest in a two-room apartment, the only Jews in a building whose other occupants became Waldman's extended family.

Waldman credits those families, still in Romania, with giving her the hope of reclaiming the villa. Yesterday, she said those same people will meet her at the airport on her next journey.

She hasn't decided what to do with the large house. She might try to find someone to manage it and rent part of it, while keeping the rest for her family to visit.

But first, she said, "I want to be in it, feel it, see it."

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