The waiting game

Prague Post 24 June 2009
By Marilyn Henry

The Holocaust Era Assets conference could be a step toward justice, but talk is unlikely to be backed by action

The waiting game

Delegates from nearly 50 nations are expected to convene in Prague June 26 for a five-day conference on Holocaust Era Assets. The conference, announced last year as the grand finale of the Czech EU presidency, is the first international diplomatic conference on this issue in a decade, and likely the last word to Nazi victims on the fate of their losses.

The conference - hosted by the Czech government, the Documentation Centre of Property Transfers of Cultural Assets of World War II Victims, the Federation of Jewish Communities in the Czech Republic, the Terezín Memorial and other institutions - revisits the 1998 Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets. That event, convened by the U.S. State Department, had a lofty goal. Focusing on Nazi victims' material losses, the conference was intended to help complete the "unfinished business" of the 20th century: to set straight the historical record on Holocaust-era assets and to provide "some measure of justice" to surviving victims, Stuart Eizenstat, then U.S. undersecretary of state, said at the December 1998 event.

That conference focused attention on Nazi-era insurance claims, Nazi-looted artworks and confiscated communal property. The United States is a firm supporter of property restitution, but that belief is not universally shared. It is one thing to speak generally about World War II-era losses, and quite another to produce an acceptable international remedy.

Experience shows that property restitution is too delicate a topic on which to craft consensus among nations with very different wartime histories - as perpetrators, collaborators and victims - and whose postwar histories run the gamut from prosperous independence to impoverished repression, from which some have yet to recover. In addition, multilateral discussions often entangle Nazi-era confiscations with communist-era expropriations, with irreconcilable claims between two groups of victims: those of the Nazis and those of the communists.

'Unfinished business'

Eizenstat, who was former President Bill Clinton's point man on restitution, acknowledged in 1998 that there were "many practical difficulties in resolving these issues." But, so not to leave the event empty-handed, the forum produced an agreement on one type of asset: art. The Washington Conference Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art call for national museums to conduct provenance research on the pre-war origins of their art collections, for the opening of archives, for a centralized database to facilitate claims on looted artworks and for "just and fair" solutions to resolve ownership claims.

To this day, it is not clear how many artworks remain tainted by Nazi theft and displacement of cultural properties. It is still unknown how much art was recovered by the Allies and ultimately returned to individual owners and their heirs, and how much remains missing, hidden, sequestered or simply unidentified.

Although a handful of countries - most notably the Netherlands and Austria - have made some blockbuster restitutions, most nations can ignore the Washington Principles. There is no international legal basis for art restitution. The principles are nonbinding and were adopted at the 11th hour of the 1998 conference with the greatest reluctance as no country would permit another state to impose standards for handling art claims - or handling anything, for that matter.

Until the announcement of the Prague conference, nations had not been invited to another international forum to publicly report on restitution.

While this conference was intended to review progress since 1998, such a review is extremely unlikely. The conference devotes too much time - two days - to forums in which professional experts discuss some of the same "unfinished business" of the prior conference. They also will discuss caring for the victims of Nazism, and review various initiatives on Holocaust education, remembrance and research. Unless national delegates participate in these "expert" forums, the professionals will be preaching to the choir.

The reports from the nearly 50 national delegations are limited to two sessions June 29 that are scheduled to last less than seven hours. If all choose to report, each delegation would have about 10 minutes to review 10 years of efforts on Holocaust-era assets in their countries. However, given how little progress there has been in most states, 10 minutes is probably five minutes too long.

"It is important to recognize the Holocaust, Shoah, both as the greatest mass murder and the greatest mass robbery ever," Senator Alexandr Vondra, an organizer of the review conference, said in a statement about the Prague forum. "The aim of this conference is to arouse a permanent interest of the international public in this issue - educate the people, compensate for material damages and provide social and health assistance to Shoah survivors."

This culminates in the adoption of the Terezín Declaration at a ceremony June 30 at the Terezín Memorial.

A draft of the declaration strikes all the right notes. It says it is important to restore communal and individual property to victims of Nazi persecution. On looted artworks, the declaration affirms the Washington Principles and says there should be just and fair solutions regarding cultural properties, including Judaica, that were looted and displaced during and as a result of the Holocaust. The signatories strongly support public and private efforts to enable Nazi victims to live in dignity.

Finally, the declaration devotes substantial attention to Holocaust education, remembrance and research, and to memorial sites, which will be the only physical witnesses to the Holocaust when the last survivors have died. To this end, the declaration says it welcomes the Czech government initiative to establish the European Shoah Legacy Institute in Terezín, which is expected to follow up the Terezín Declaration.

If most of the declaration's points sound obvious, it is because since the late 1990s international conferences, national historical panels, lawsuits and ad hoc commissions, each dealing with some facet of the fate of Nazi-era assets, left little doubt about what needs to be done to conclude the "unfinished business" of the last century.

'Sentiment, not sanctions'

As he was preparing for the Washington conference 10 years ago, Eizenstat said, "It is dispiriting that, for nearly half a century, the fate of Holocaust-era assets remained largely obscured." Eizenstat, who is now an attorney in private practice in Washington, will lead the U.S. delegation to Prague. It would come as no surprise if he updated that statement to say that it is dispiriting that, for a half-century, plus a decade, the fate of many Holocaust-era assets remain obscured.

"Unfinished business" remains just that. With the Terezín Declaration, the Prague conference will conclude without commitments or accountability. The declaration, like the Washington Principles, is purely voluntary. This seems to be the tradition in restitution: sentiment, not sanctions.

Michael Kurtz, a member of the U.S. delegation and assistant archivist of the U.S. National Archives, has noted that, during the war, the Allies tried to deter the market for Nazi loot. In their London Declaration of 1943, the Allies reserved the right "to declare invalid" any transfers of property, rights and interests in the territories under Axis control.

That declaration did not have much effect on the acquisition and purchase of Nazi-looted property. But it did, apparently, establish a precedent. "A pattern was set in regards to restitution: the pattern of laboriously developed agreements on principles unaccompanied by specific procedures on implementation," Kurtz said at a 1995 seminar in New York.

Delegates can leave Prague with their own declaration of good intent - as if a decade had not passed and, with it, the last opportunity for the international community to do something substantive for the surviving victims of Nazi persecution.


- The author is a columnist for The Jerusalem Post, has reported on the recovery of Nazi-era looted assets for more than a dozen years and is completing a book on the recovery of Holocaust-era looted art.  Marilyn Henry can be reached at
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