Presentation of the official delegation of Israel at the Vilnius Forum
Colette Avital, MP and Chairman of the Parliamentary Enquiry Committee into the Location and Restitution of the Assets of Holocaust Victims
3-5 October 2000
Israel sent an official delegation led by Colette Avital to the Vilnius International Forum on Holocaust-Era Looted Assets who gave the presentation set out below.
All countries present at the Forum agreed the Final Declaration.
Even though this Conference is a logical follow-up to the restitution work, which painfully began a decade ago, it is unique in its contents and implications, since it deals with our intellectual and cultural heritage. Art is, in many ways, an extension of the human being. Yet, at the same time it is an expression of the sublime. The work of creation is a lonesome act, but its outcome brings to generations of people the world over joy and elation, it uplifts their spirit.
I would like to thank, at the outset, a few people who have paved the way to this Conference - first and foremost, Stuart Eizenstat, Deputy Secretary of the Treasury; the Deputy Prime Minister of the Czech Republic, Pavel Rychetsky. Let me also thank our hosts and the organizers of the Vilnius Forum, the Lithuanian Government and more particularly, Member of the Seimas, Emmanuelis Zingeris.
For us, this Conference is taking place during the ten days between Rosh Hashana (the New Year) and Yom Kipur, known as the Days of Awe. These are days of introspection and of soul - searching. We consider our own lives, and also think about the fate of our people. Fifty-five years after the end of WW II and after the tragedy that has befallen our people, we still deal with the consequences of that war. We still seek to understand that which escapes definition. We have tried to come to terms with the various stages that have led to the annihilation of our people - from economic persecution and appropriation, to the looting of our properties, to deportation, forced labour, and then, on, to the final solution.
In past years the European Governments have had to face this dark chapter in their history. Many of these governments have assumed responsibility, some have decided to compensate individuals and Communities for their lost properties, some have created funds such as the "Remembrance, Responsibility and Future" Foundation of Germany, or the "Swiss Banks" settlement. We would also like to note the actions carried on by the Governments of the U.K., the Netherlands, Norway, the Czech Republic. And last, but of no lesser importance, many Governments invest today in special educational programs, so as to raise the next generations free of xenophobia and anti-Semitism.
But today is different. For we are here to discuss something painful, almost intimate - the very essence of our existence, our cultural identity, our intellectual and cultural heritage. That, too has been plundered, looted and sold. Oftentimes those who have committed the crimes did not do so only out of their greediness - but because they wanted to strip us of our identity.
Over the years we have heard many insinuations and theories, mainly from those who would not have us retrieve our heritage. It has been said that perhaps there is no Jewish art, as such; that after all works of art are universal, and as such they belong to all. Others claim that Jewish art is part of the European heritage. Not so. Nothing can be further away from the truth.
A work of art, it is true, is usually not consciously conceived by the artist as part of a national saga. The artist, working in what appears to be mute isolation of his studio, has other means than the obvious, to convey his feelings, his thoughts, his message. And yet, he is the carrier of a long tradition, he draws on his environment, and he prepares a fertile field for the subsequent genius of other generations of artists.
And so it is with our own art and literature. It is true, that Jewish art and thought evolved in particularly difficult circumstances - from the Mosaic commandment "Thou shallt not make unto thee any graven image" - to the physical difficulties of dispersal, displacement and wondering - with only the rarest of opportunities to settle, farm one tract of land for generations, or to establish a community. All these have had an impact, but then the more merit there is to that which has been created, and painfully transmitted. From paintings as early as that of the 3rd c. synagogue at Dura Europos in Syria, to later synagogue murals all over Europe, to the designs for Holy arks, through the illuminated manuscripts, religious artifacts the sacred and profane texts of the Golden Age in Spain,- and finally unto Jewish painters such as Pissaro, all these are a testimony of Jewish creativity, spirituality and talent.
Painfully written, composed or drawn in the attics during the days of the Inquisition or in the back streets of the ghettos, these works embody the soul of our people.
Literature, it has been said, is the effort of man to indemnify himself for the wrongs of his condition. And this has been particularly true of our own condition.
The French have a particularly meaningful word to describe their cultural heritage, as a whole - they call it le patrimoine. The word "Patrimoine", may be based on two roots - "patri" coming from padre, father, but then also "patrie", meaning the homeland.
Chekhov once said that Man is what he believes. Our art, our texts, our manuscripts, our music, our religious artifacts have been our home away from home, have served as a substitute for our homeland in the dark and cold nights of Europe. They have expressed our beliefs, our fears, our hopes, our prayers for a better life. They have expressed the rational, but more often - the irrational. The artists appeal to that part of our being which is not dependent on wisdom, that in us, which is a gift, not an acquisition, and therefore more permanently enduring.
So we come to you today to say that these works belong to our own patrimoine. It is not compensation that we are seeking. It is a part of our identity, which must return to our people. It is our books, our Torah Scrolls, our paintings, those, which are in private collections, and those, which are in national museums. We all know too well the strange paths that some of these works of art may have followed - from property looted by the Nazis to art dealers, with the result that today they can be found dispersed through every country in Europe, America and South America, in almost every major museum, gallery, private collection, dealing room and auction house. This is why the looted property issue is no doubt, much more complex than all the restitution issues. But for us it is above all a moral issue. It is a question of moral justice. Unlike banks or insurance, blame, guilt or responsibility cannot be laid at the door of any single dealer, auction house or government. So this requires major international efforts to research, collect and build a database, set a special register, all of which have been so eloquently expounded by Mr. Eizenstat. And which we would like to publicly support.
This is the main reason for the decision, jointly taken, last week in Jerusalem by the Israeli Government and the World Jewish Restitution Organization to establish an International Jewish Committee for the Restitution of Jewish Cultural Property. The aim of the Committee will be to invest all possible efforts so that works of art, books, paintings, sculpture, Judaica, should be returned to their rightful owners or their heirs; and if these regretfully, are no longer among us, then it should be established that the Jewish people, and its representatives will become the natural heirs, both in their right to claim, and in their right to ultimately own that property. In that connection, we suggest that the next Conference of this Forum takes place in Jerusalem.
It has been said that Art, like morality consists of drawing a line somewhere. It is that line that we must draw here today, a clear demarcation line between the dark past and a brighter future.
Vilnius International Forum on Holocaust-Era Looted Cultural Assets Website, accessed 27 November 2002. The website no longer exists (20 July 2007).