Prague Shoah summit urges return of Jewish real estate, art

Haaretz 30 June 2009

PRAGUE - Nearly 50 countries attending a conference on seized Holocaust assets called yesterday for a return of Jewish real estate and art stolen during the World War II.

The Prague conference, attended by 46 countries and marking the end of the Czech Republic's presidency of the European Union, also urged governments to boost care for elderly Holocaust survivors, many of them now living in poverty.

"It is unacceptable that those who suffered so greatly during the earlier part of their lives should live under impoverished circumstances at the end," the conference's final declaration said.

However, the statement, named the Terezin Declaration after a Nazi-era ghetto north of Prague, is not binding, giving countries discretion over whether to act upon its recommendations.

Nazi Germany killed 6 million Jews, three quarters of European Jewry, in an act of systematic genocide known as the Holocaust. The Nazis confiscated or purchased at artificially-low prices Jewish assets worth billions of dollars in order to fuel its war machine.

For the first time since the war ended in 1945, the high-level conference urged return or compensation for private Jewish real estate "in a fair, comprehensive and non-discriminatory manner."

Such restitution should be also be "expeditious, simple, accessible, transparent, and neither burdensome nor costly to the individual claimant," the declaration said.

Countries in Central Europe do not have "adequate, non-discriminatory" private property restitution laws, the head of U.S. delegation Stuart Eizenstat told the conference.

Poland, a participant at the conference, is seen as the worst offender, having no private property restitution law at all, while another attendee, Lithuania, has yet to make compensation for Jewish property.

The Czech Republic agreed to establish an institute in Terezin that would draft non-binding best principles on restitution of immovable property by June 30, 2010.

The Terezin Declaration also reaffirmed the 1998 Washington Principles, a non-binding document that advised nations on how to deal with Nazi-confiscated or looted art.

While those recommendations resulted in a return of hundreds of artworks to their original owners or heirs, many claimants have seen the principles as a failure as they still encounter legal and procedural hurdles in many countries.

Conference participants Russia and Germany still have "large troves" of art waiting to be returned to original owners or heirs, Eizenstat said.

The Prague conference also encouraged "the fullest possible relevant archival access," so researchers could establish the provenance of stolen artworks.
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