PRAGUE — Holocaust survivors, Jewish groups and experts gathered in Prague on Friday to assess efforts to return property and possessions stolen by the Nazis to their rightful owners or heirs.
The five-day conference, which brings together delegates from 49 countries, is a follow-up to a 1998 meeting in Washington that led to agreements on recovering art looted by the Nazis.
Stuart Eizenstat, head of the U.S. delegation, called it the most ambitious international meeting ever on the recovery of such stolen possessions or compensation for their loss.
One goal is to produce international guidelines on this, but they would not be compulsory for the governments involved.
"There's no political will to have a binding treaty," Eizenstat acknowledged.
But he said the voluntary principles that were approved in Washington are having an impact. "We have hundreds of pieces of art that have been returned," he said.
During the Holocaust, Adolf Hitler and his followers killed 6 million Jews and seized billions of dollars of gold, art and private and communal property across Europe. But while countries such as Austria have stepped up restitution in recent years, critics claim some Central and Eastern European states still have a long way to go.
"Many governments in Central and Eastern Europe have not found a way to implement a process to resolve outstanding real property issues that is both consistent with national law and incorporates basic principles such as nondiscriminatory treatment of non-citizens and a simple, expeditious claims and restitution process," said conference delegate Christian Kennedy, the U.S. Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues.
The Czech Republic, host of this week's meeting, and other countries, have come under fire for legal hurdles and a lack of political will that critics claim make property restitution in some cases practically impossible.
For example, attempts by Maria Altmann of California to reclaim a castle north of Prague that once belonged to her uncle, Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, proved futile since she is not a Czech citizen.
"As far as I know, there is no legal method for obtaining any recovery there at this time," Altmann's lawyer, Randol Schoenberg, said in an e-mail. Altmann had waged — and won — a seven-year legal battle in neighboring Austria for the return of five paintings by Gustav Klimt.
Efforts by the daughter of wealthy Jewish banker Jiri Popper to recover a building he once owned in Prague also have stalled.
Czechoslovak President Edvard Benes gave the building, which currently houses the Russian Embassy, to the Soviet Union in 1945. Last year, Popper's daughter filed lawsuits against both the Czech Republic and Russia demanding restitution, but no trial date has been set because Czech authorities said they have failed so far to formally inform Moscow about it, said Irena Benesova, the family's lawyer.
While the Justice Ministry declined to comment on the matter, Russian Embassy spokesman Alexandr Pismenny said Moscow was the "honest owner."
Both Schoenberg and Benesova wanted to make their case at the conference but were turned away by organizers who said they did not want discussion of individual cases. The Holocaust Survivors' Foundation claims that others also have not been allowed to have their say in setting the agenda for the conference.
In a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton dated June 19, the group expressed concern about "the lack of survivor involvement on the planning, priority setting and policy making roles in the conference."
Still, the Czech Republic does appear to be taking some steps in the right direction.
A government fund created nine years ago with 300 million koruna (US$15.9 million) has paid out 100 million koruna (US$5.3 million) to 516 out of 1,256 requests from 27 countries. The requests came from people whose restitution claims did not meet the criteria set by law.
The country also has set up the Documentation Center of Property Transfers of Cultural Assets of WWII Victims, an institution that identifies artwork and other items in Czech collections and museums that were seized from Jews during the Nazi occupation.
According to Director Helena Krejcova, some 7,000 paintings and other works of art that originally belonged to Czech Jews have been found, and another more than 1,000 stolen pieces are believed to be abroad.
"There's still a lot of work ahead of us," Krejcova said, adding that sometimes efforts to restitute items are stymied by a lack of cooperation from other states and a change to that is nowhere in sight.
Case in point: Czech authorities have been waiting five years for a reply from Russia after Krejcova's team traced a valuable collection of 500 porcelain pieces once owned by Holocaust victim Hans Meyer to St. Petersburg.