Spotlight On Holocaust-Era Assets, One Last Time

The Jewish Week 24 June 2009
By Gideon Taylor

In a few months we will soon mark the 70th anniversary of the beginning of history’s darkest chapter, when the Nazis coupled their invasion of Poland with the attempt to complete their systematic destruction of the Jewish people.

But even before World War II, the Nazis had begun the greatest mass theft in history, with plunder, confiscation, and forced sales of assets an integral part of the plan to disenfranchise and ultimately murder Europe’s Jews and millions of others. There is nothing we can do to change or alleviate history’s greatest crime. But we can compel the world to take a hard look at the still-unresolved issues of stolen properties, artworks, and other assets not yet returned.

This week the world community will gather in Prague for the Holocaust Era Assets Conference (June 26-30). This will likely be the last opportunity for an international discussion of this issue, with 49 nations attending. The Jewish groups represented will remind those countries that this issue is about history, not money, and about fairness, not finances. Nothing will bring back those who perished — ultimately the steps that governments can take are symbolic. But symbols matter.

In the process of restituting looted and lost assets, nations have the opportunity to look once again at their own histories and to address injustices of the past. It is not too late to obtain this small measure of justice, with international attention once again re-focused on this issue.

But we cannot allow international attention to this issue to merely shine brightly for a few days at the end of June and then fade once the conference disperses. The follow-up to the Prague Conference will be as important as the gathering itself. Governments will sign an international declaration in Prague on the principle and importance of restitution; we must press for permanent, ongoing monitoring of its implementation.

In Eastern Europe, numerous countries have yet to enact meaningful legislation that could restore stolen properties to heirs or Jewish communities. Continuing efforts in this area have brought some progress in individual countries in recent years, showing us that though the task is arduous, it can bring results. With the attention of the world brought to this issue in Prague and with continued pressure afterwards, it is hoped that countries such as Poland, Lithuania, Romania, and others will finally face up to their responsibilities. We will ask for claims processes that are just and fair, before the properties are irretrievably lost, and we must continue to press for heirless Jewish property to be returned to the Jewish people.

Identifying and returning looted art and Judaica has been a stubbornly difficult area of Holocaust restitution. Ten years ago, 44 nations signed the Washington Conference Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art, but no mechanism was established to monitor the actions on this issue taken by the signing governments. Some countries that signed the Principles have made significant progress in provenance research and establishing processes to claim looted art, but many have not. 

We must use the spotlight in Prague to emphasize the imperative behind dedicated provenance research of artworks’ ownership histories and to address perhaps one of the most important obligations upon us — the identification and return of looted Judaica, with numerous ritual and holy items still in government or private hands.

The Holocaust survivors still with us increasingly need assistance and care. Abandoned by the world in their youth while undergoing unimaginable persecution, they must not be forgotten now. More funds are needed to provide medical care, in-home care, and other vital services. We must seek to ensure that in the coming years, additional resources from governments as well as from heirless Jewish property will be made available to address these growing needs.

At the conference, we must also emphasize the issue of Holocaust education, which assumes greater urgency as the years distance us from the events of the Shoah. We need to press for governments around the world to include Holocaust studies in their national educational curricula. With knowledge of the Shoah not universal today and with Holocaust denial now made part of international discourse, we must urge conference participants to consider the consequences should the lessons of the Shoah not be taught today and after the survivors are no longer with us.

The conference participants gathering in the heart of Europe will hear much discussion of the mechanisms involved in restoring Holocaust assets. They will hear of the challenges involved in restoring Judaica to bereft Jewish communities or of restituting family apartment buildings. But behind the talk and the bureaucracy lies a basic principle of justice and fairness that even 70 years later is a call to action. With few survivors left, Prague and its aftermath is perhaps a final opportunity to make the case that what the Jewish world seeks is not just the restitution of property but, more importantly, the restitution of history.

Gideon Taylor is the outgoing executive vice president of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany and treasurer of the World Jewish Restitution Organization.
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