BONN -- From Jews whose property was taken by the Nazis to investors who put their money in Czarist bonds, thousands of Americans see the revolutions of 1989 as a ticket to windfalls of 1990.
Since 1954, a little-known federal agency, the U.S. Foreign Claims Commission, has considered the claims of Americans who lost foreign property in wars or when foreign governments nationalized private land.
In recent months, the commission has been inundated with calls from citizens who see the fall of communism in Eastern Europe as new hope for getting compensation for their losses.
"Their eyes are sparkling because the next big real estate boom is not in Fairfax County, but East Germany," said Stanley Glod, chairman of the commission.
Some East European countries, eager to win trade concessions from the United States, agreed to pay off American claims years ago. Czechoslovakia paid $100 million to Americans after a 1985 agreement. Poland paid $40 million in 1966 -- about a third of the amount Americans are due.
Other countries have refused to pay. The top scofflaws are the Soviet Union and Cuba.
The Soviets, who have met with State Department negotiators on the claims issue three times since 1988, owe billions, Glod said, going back to the Russian Revolution, when the Bolsheviks annulled thousands of Czarist bonds held by Americans.
"They really have a tough situation on their hands because of a 1934 law that prevents them from floating bonds in the U.S. until they pay off their responsibilities," Glod said.
Cuban-Americans and corporations have claims of $4 billion against Cuba.
Most public interest now stems from East German claims. In 1981, when the U.S. commission considered claims against East Germany, it ruled that the Communist government owed $77 million to 1,899 American citizens and businesses, ranging from Martina Greenwood, a Burke, Va., woman whose grandmother left her an apartment building in Leipzig, to General Motors Corp., which owned sales rooms and service shops that were confiscated in 1948.
But East Germany would not pay, and, with interest, the U.S. claims now total $170 million. No new talks have begun, but Bonn officials have said the reunited country will settle all legitimate foreign claims.