Presentations and Reports:

Presentation of the official delegation of the United States of America at the Vilnius Forum 3-5 October 2000


Presentation of the official delegation of the United States of America at the Vilnius Forum

Stuart E. Eizenstat, Special Representative of the President of the USA, Deputy Secretary of the US Treasury and Secretary of State for Holocaust Issues

3-5 October 2000

The US sent an official delegation led by Stuart E. Eizenstat 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.

Mr. President, Mr. Prime Minister, Lord Russell-Johnston and delegates:

I am deeply touched by the opportunity you have given me to keynote the plenary session of the Vilnius Forum. This gathering of delegates from so many nations can be an important milestone in the ongoing effort to bring a measure of justice to the victims of the Holocaust and to restore to them the cultural values that were theirs. This proud nation, in whose capital we meet today is, after half a century of often brutal occupation, free, independent, democratic, and resourceful enough to take the lead in focusing the world's attention on this important quest.

President Adamkus and Prime Minister Kubilius, you have shown time and again, and particularly in the last year, high moral leadership in speaking about the need for Lithuanians to deal openly with their complex and difficult history over the last sixty years. Under your leadership Lithuania has established an historical commission, which is conducting an active investigation into Nazi and Soviet-era crimes. It has put in place extensive programs of Holocaust education in its schools and universities, and among the ranks of its military. Your sponsorship of this Forum is another admirable example. Only yesterday, your Parliament set a positive tone for this conference when it voted to return hundreds of Torah scrolls to Jewish communities around the world. The Council of Europe, a milestone on the road toward European unification, under the leadership of Dr. Schwimmer and Lord Russell-Johnston, has taken a keen interest in issues involving Holocaust assets and in healing the wounds resulting from the most destructive war in human history. We are most appreciative that the Government of Lithuania took up the call of the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly to host this international conference.

I also want to thank all of those, from Lithuania and elsewhere, who have worked so hard to organize this Forum. No assembly of this magnitude can be the work of one person. But if there was a single vision behind this gathering, if there was one individual who, with admirable patriotism, believed that Lithuania could be a motivating force for the return of cultural property, and who pursued that vision with extraordinary energy and determination, that person is Emmanuelis Zingeris, a Member of the Lithuanian Parliament and the chairman of the Council of Europe committee on Holocaust -related cultural assets. We all owe him our gratitude for this achievement. I would also like to especially acknowledge from my delegation the extraordinary work of Ambassador J.D. Bindenagel and Dr. Wesley Fisher of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum who gave so generously of their time and effort to make this Forum a success.

It is altogether proper that we meet in this place. Although Vilnius is a small city, it is central to the history of the Jewish people in Europe and to the bitter years of the Holocaust. For three hundred years, Vilnius was one of the most important centers of religious culture and religious scholarship in the world. It was called the Jerusalem of the North. Rabbi Elijah ben Solomon, the Vilna Gaon, was one of the most authoritative and important interpreters of the Talmudic tradition in the long history of Jewish scholarship. By 1939, Vilnius had 100 synagogues, six Hebrew and Yiddish newspapers, three Jewish libraries, including the Strashun Library of over 7000 rare volumes, the YIVO Scientific Research Institute, of which Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein were honorary members, and schools of art which trained such scholars as Bernard Berenson, the eminent authority on the art of Italy. Vilnius was a multinational, cosmopolitan community whose children could speak several languages including Lithuanian, Polish, Yiddish, and Russian.

All of that ended with the Nazi invasion, when the Holocaust came to Lithuania. Over seventy thousand Jewish men, women and children - and over 100000 people in all - were taken to the Paneriai forest, which you visited today and I visited a year ago with Mr. Zingeris. These people were executed and buried in mass graves. The rest of the Jewish population, and Jews from other countries, were rounded up and herded into a walled ghetto in the old City. They lived several families to a room, with insufficient food and poor sanitation, and were required to perform forced labor. A major exhibit Emmanuelis Zingeris arranged in Washington and in Lithuania displayed original posters of cultural events. It showed that even under these unbearable conditions, people still had the courage to attend concerts, seminars and book reviews.

In 1943, on orders of Heinrich Himmler, the ghetto residents were transported to the concentration camps and death camps. In 1939, the Jewish population of Vilnius was 90000. Today it is 2500. No amount of restitution can ever make up for the lives and cultural values that were destroyed, or for the human dignity that was violated, not only here in Lithuania but throughout Europe.

Over the past two years the countries represented at this Forum have played a leading role in international efforts to provide those who survived and their families with some measure of justice, by discovering and returning their Nazi-confiscated assets. There have been three major international conferences. The London Conference in 1997 focused on the amount of gold the Nazis confiscated from occupied countries and victims to support their war effort. In the field of art and cultural properties, the principles adopted by the Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets in 1998 have come to be accepted as guidelines for locating and publicizing missing works, investigating their provenance, and encouraging the prompt and equitable disposition of claims through appropriate national procedures. They built on the guidelines adopted by the American Association of Museum Directors. The Stockholm Forum last January focused on Holocaust education.

We are here this week to take stock of how the Washington Principles have worked in practice. We seek to determine how far we have come and what we have learned in getting here. At this Forum, we are asking noted experts, and we are asking each other, what improvements in techniques, what changes in practice, what new commitment of resources are needed to accomplish the work that has been started?

In the field of art, our nations have pledged themselves to an organized international effort, voluntary in nature but backed by strong moral commitment, to research provenance, uncover stolen art, publicize its existence and encourage a just and fair solution to conflicting claims of ownership. This is a shared enterprise. Every government should examine its own collections and records, and should urge museums, libraries, dealers, auctioneers and companies that display art in their offices to do the same. A significant start has been made in this regard, as will be detailed in the Country Reports later on the program, but much remains to be done. This plan of action has broad support among the people of our countries. Time and again, we have seen that no institution, be it a museum, library, national collection or private institution has insisted on retaining a work of Holocaust art once a claim has been validly established and widely publicized, and once the conscience of the community has been aroused.

However, despite commendable activity in many nations, a tremendous inventory of stolen art, books and cultural property is still unidentified and unclaimed. The number of instances in the last two years in which works of art or other cultural property have been restored to their prewar owners, or retained by current owners as a result of a settlement with these owners is relatively small. This does not mean that the process embodied in the Washington Principles has been ignored, or that the principles themselves are flawed, or even that we are not trying hard enough. It is rather that in the course of applying these principles, we have come across practical problems that need be addressed to finish the task.

First is the problem of resources. Tracing the chain of ownership of art which after confiscation found its way into the international art market, searching government archives for Allied and captured Nazi inventories of postwar compensation claims, is time-consuming, labor intensive and costly. It often requires work in several different countries and research in several languages. Most major museums on both sides of the Atlantic have been able to undertake such research. However, smaller museums in the U.S. and elsewhere, especially those not subsidized by their governments, are having difficulty fitting this demanding work into their budgets. It is very important that governments allocate funds wherever possible to support this research and train more researchers. Universities and art schools can also assist by giving course credit for this research to qualified art history students.

In the U.S., almost 2000 works of art in the holdings of eight large institutions, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston were found to have gaps in their Nazi-era provenance and have been posted on websites for the benefit of potential claimants. Although the transparency and the best methods used in conducting some of this research as well as making it publicly available remain a matter of debate among experts, these actions are a strong step forward. The institutions containing the collections of Germany, Austria and the United Kingdom have conducted intensive provenance research to discover works that may have been looted and are publishing their findings on websites. They follow the excellent example France set a few years ago by displaying on the Internet art returned to that nation after the War but not yet claimed. The National Gallery of Art in Washington, after years of intensive research into this era, using captured enemy documents held in the U.S. National Archives, has made the images of and information about its entire collection available electronically.

The Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg, or ERR, was the most important of the Nazi organizations tasked with stealing the finest art in Europe for the museum Hitler hoped to build in his birthplace. Research into the archives containing records of the ERR and other Nazi looting organizations, taken to then-Soviet Union by the Red Army at the end of the War, are critically important for all our efforts at restitution. These archives can help reveal whether thousands of works of art, which have not shown up in the international art market and are presumed lost, may still exist. To its great credit, the Russian Federation has established the legal right of victims of National Socialism to claim their artworks residing in Russia, a right confirmed last May with the passage of new legislation. During the Washington Conference, the Russian delegation agreed to open these archives to researchers. But the Russian government has been candid about the fact that it is not in a financial position to search its museums and depositories by itself.

Private citizens in the United States have expressed their desire to help in the creation of a special register of displaced cultural assets in Russia and to publish it. Mr. Stephen Lash, the chairman of Christie's North and South America, has proposed the creation of a private, nonprofit organization to raise funds, evaluate research proposals and make grants. I am pleased to announce today that two prominent citizens, Edgar Bronfman, president of the World Jewish Congress, in his personal capacity, and Ronald Lauder, former U.S. Ambassador to Austria and chairman of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, in his capacity as chair of the Commission for Art Recovery, have offered to begin the process of creating such an organization. They will do so by providing a budget of $500000 to fund a pilot project to help organize a special register of displaced art and identify prewar owners through research in Russian archives. I hope this great act of philanthropy by Mr. Bronfman and Ambassador Lauder will encourage individuals and governments to contribute to this effort. In discussions last week in Moscow, senior officials of the Russian Federation, Russian museums and a private foundation expressed strong support for this cooperative effort. This is a great breakthrough. I am confident that in this way Russia will demonstrate its commitment to the international effort to bring justice long sought for Holocaust victims. We hope that this positive action by the Russian Federation will be followed by similar action in other countries in regard to the opening of Holocaust-era archives generally. I note that in the United States, an interagency group is expected to declassify millions of pages of records over the next two years, many of them relating to Holocaust-era looted cultural property, in addition to the 2.5 million pages declassified to date.

A second major problem in applying the Washington Principles is the lack of agreement on how best to communicate the results of research to those searching for stolen art. The Washington Conference recognized that the rapid development of electronic communication made it possible for families that could not afford professional help to start their search with information posted on the Internet. The Washington Principles urged that efforts be made to establish a central registry of information. What we have today is a very large number of web sites belonging to countries, museums and other institutions that differ, in the nature and quantity of information offered, from country to country and even from source to source within a country. There is no single source, on the web or otherwise, which families can consult to see if art they lost has been identified and if so where it is. This disadvantages the victims.

The Washington Principles proposed creation of a central registry of information. Frankly, experience has shown this will take far too long and cost far too much to construct. We are proposing instead the creation of one central website, with hyper-links to all other sources of information. These hyper-links would connect claimants and researchers to the information that is available now and will become available in the future concerning provenance, claims and other essential research both in primary sources and, for larger collections, in finding aids. This is a concrete, practical and achievable step. This Forum should designate an appropriate institution to house this central website, such as the Council of Europe, which has already called for a European conference and legislative reform on Holocaust-era looted cultural property.

The Washington Principles also recommended that if claims made are disputed, they be resolved where possible through methods that are speedier, less costly and less confrontational than traditional litigation. I commend the United Kingdom for adopting this approach in creating its Spoliation Advisory Panel. On the few occasions in which it has been tried in the United States, we have also seen good results. Earlier this year, the North Carolina Museum of Art learned that its "Madonna and Child in a Landscape", by the German master Lucas Cranach, belonged to the heirs of an Austrian victim of the Holocaust. Using the mediation services of the Holocaust Claims Processing Office of the State of New York, the Museum decided to return the painting to the heirs and they agreed to sell it back to the Museum at a reduced price so that it could continue to be viewed by the public. The Denver Art Museum availed itself of mediation in deciding to return "The Letter", by the 17th c. Dutch painter Gerard Terborch to the relatives of a German victim. Nevertheless, the courtroom is, unfortunately, still the forum for the large majority of art claims, a fact that precludes recovery by the many claimants who cannot afford the high costs and long delays involved. Our governments should encourage greater use of the various methods of alternative dispute resolution, and offer specific instruction in Holocaust era issues to those who practice them.

You are also discussing the important matter of increasing access to archival sources of information. The full disclosure of the historical record on art and cultural values, as on other subjects dealing with the Holocaust, requires a continuous effort to open and make broadly accessible to researchers the wide range of historical sources from which judgments can be made and justice can arise. Much has been done in recent years to open the record of the past, but much remains to be done by those governments and institutions that retain some portion of the shared recollection of these events. There are files and collections still to be found and identified; there are files and archives to which access must be made more responsive to the reasonable needs of researchers, and there are files and collections that must be declassified and exposed to the light of scholarly study. This Forum should declare that countries that have not so far made their relevant archives open and accessible in accordance with the Washington Principles will do so speedily.

Finally, but just as important, we must stress the fact that continuing cooperation between nations, as well as within nations, is absolutely vital to finding and publicizing looted cultural property and resolving ownership disputes with speed and fairness.

We must use this Forum to add new vigor to the work of restitution, so that people who have been deprived of their property for most of their lives can find justice. The Nazi regime perpetrated the greatest art theft in history. As hard as we try, we can only return a small proportion of all that was stolen and was never given back. But what we accomplish will go well beyond the return of property itself. The successful negotiations with Germany over forced and slave labor have shown that we can strengthen relations between nations; we can help reconciliation between people; and, by reminding the world of the enormity of the damage done to the moral system of the entire world by the crimes of the Holocaust, we can help create a strong and permanent international consensus for justice. I am confident that as a result of these proceedings, nations will redouble their efforts to make progress on all these fronts. However, this Forum need not be the last international conference dealing with Holocaust-era assets. We are willing to consider supporting well-planned future conferences.

Thank you. I am delighted to be with you. Let us keep working, steadfast in the knowledge that we are doing all we can to cap the values of culture and the glory of art with the crown of justice.

Vilnius International Forum on Holocaust-Era Looted Cultural Assets Website, accessed 27 November 2002. The website no longer exists (20 July 2007).

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