Study Commission on Jewish Assets (Commission d'Études des Biens Juifs)
The Study Commission on Jewish Assets was created by Royal Decree of 6 July 1997, and subsequently by the Act of 15 January 1999. It was chaired by M. Lucien Buysse. Its aim was to investigate the fate of the Belgian Jewish Community's assets which were plundered, surrendered or abandoned during the Second World War. The Study Commission studied the ways in which looting took place during the Occupation, as well as the measures taken after the war by the Government and the private sector to restore the looted property to its owners or to pay compensation. The population considered in this research were those who were subject to the anti-Jewish policies adopted by the Nazi occupying forces in Belgium. The Study Commission therefore drew up a database containing information on the victims of those policies, regardless of their nationality. The Study Commission submitted a full report to the Belgian Government on 12 July 2001 and was disbanded on 1 October 2001
Final Report: Evaluation and Conclusions
The Commission noted the vulnerability of the Jewish population of Belgium to Nazi persecution. "Opportunities for escape were few and far between". Shortly after the Nazi invasion extensive anti-Jewish measures were put in place which led to the seizure of Jewish property by the Möbelaction, the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR) and others. The property included real estate, diamonds, enterprises, liquid funds, insurance policies and bank deposits. Artworks were specially targeted.
After the war restitution was the responsibility of three departments: the Department of the Sequestration of Enemy Goods, the Department of Economic Recovery (DER) and the Department of War Damage. Little attention was paid to the victims of racial persecution. A Decree of 1 October 1947 on the restitution of war damage effectively excluded Jewish victims, and bank accounts, jewellery and artwork did not qualify for restitution.
The recovery of Jewish owned artwork was the responsibility of the DER and their results were "negligible". No system was established to trace the legitimate owners of recovered artworks. "Most of the Jewish [owned] artworks and cultural objects were sold off, with the proceeds going to the Treasury; some of them found their way into museums."
In the course of its work the Commission compiled an extensive bibliography of archival and other literature available, including public and private archives and the General State Archive. The Commission integrated the personal data of victims of the anti-Jewish edicts and information on the victims' belongings into the Mala Zimetbaum Databank (MZDB). The Commission was further assisted by the research project of the Study and Documentation Centre War and Contemporary Society (SOMA) 'Inquiry into the stolen and abandoned possessions of Jews in Belgium during the Nazi period'.
The Commission decided to concentrate its efforts on areas where the possibility existed of tracing unclaimed stolen property. The findings of the Commission enabled the identification of a number of Jewish owned objects and assets. In tracing non-restituted possessions the Commission examined four sources: namely public authorities, the arts and culture sector, insurance companies and financial institutions.
In respect of public authorities, the Commission noted disturbing gaps in essential parts of the archives, including the archives of the Brussels office of the Administration of Registration and Domains. In the arts and culture sector the investigation was limited to cultural institutions and museums in Belgium, and excluded the private art market and private and foreign collections. Archives were available almost in their entirety.
The Commission states that its study in the area of looted artworks is very incomplete. Notwithstanding this proviso, 331 looted objects and artworks were found in museums and cultural institutions in Belgium which are considered by the Commission stolen property of Jewish owners. This information was entered into a database 'Jewish Cultural Assets - Belgium'. Full details of the Commission's findings in this area are in Section 4.4 of its report.
In the course of its operations the Commission registered 1,029 claims from individuals on its database, including claims forwarded by the Belgian sector of the World Jewish Restitution Organisation (renamed the National Commission of the Belgian Jewish Community for Restitution). The majority of claims emanated from Belgium, and over half claimed furniture and other cultural property including artworks.
The Commission recommended that a separate body, a Commission for Indemnification, be set up to investigate claims, using the MZDB as a working tool. The search for looted Jewish cultural property listed in the 'Jewish Cultural Assets - Belgium' database was not completed by the Commission and the Commission recommended that work should be continued by two researchers/art historians previously attached to the Study Commission, and with the following aims:
These proposals are currently being implemented.
With respect to objects definitely identified as Jewish and where the owner is known and legal claimants can be identified, the Commission recommended that beneficiaries be notified in order that they be able to take appropriate steps. With respect to 'heirless' property, where no legal claimant can be identified, the Commission recommended that objects relating to Jewish worship or to the Jewish communities in Belgium be returned to Jewish institutions. Other kinds of heirless objects might remain in museums.
With respect to documents and personal items of remembrance that had been kept by the Department of War Victims, the Commission proposed that they be restituted to their rightful owners. Any remaining documents should be transferred to the Jewish Musuem of Deportation and Resistance in Malines by the Commission for Indemnification within two years of its commencing work.
The complete report is available in French and Flemish online at http://www.combuysse.fgov.be.
The title page, preface and final evaluation are available online in English at http://www.combuysse.fgov.be/hoofdframerepen.html.