East European nations yesterday stated for the first time that heirless Jewish property should be used to aid needy Holocaust survivors. The statement was the final and joint resolution of the Holocaust Era Assets Conference, which ended yesterday in Prague.
"In some states heirless property could serve as a basis for addressing the material necessities of needy Holocaust survivors," said the 10-page declaration, signed by 46 countries including Poland, Ukraine, Belarus and Lithuania.
Retired diplomat Reuven Merhav, who put together Israel's delegation, told Haaretz the declaration was "a historic and great achievement for Israel," which secured all of Israel's goals for the conference. Though the document is not legally binding, he said, "it sets a norm."
Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania and other countries have so far resisted giving restitution of heirless property, citing laws stating it belongs to the state. But Jewish delegates said the Holocaust was a unique occurrence beyond normal legal provisions.
Former Bank of Israel governor Moshe Sanbar, a veteran restitution campaigner, said the five-day conference should have ended with the allotment of a "down payment" to address the urgent needs of survivors, tens of thousands of whom are living in poverty. "The Holocaust saw the destruction of 75 percent of Europe's Jewish population, but also the confiscation of nearly 100 percent of Jewish property," he said. "Normal laws cannot apply here and we need to act fast to help those who are still left."
"The conference successfully flags that there's unfinished business here," said Rabbi Andrew Baker, who attended the conference as an American Jewish Committee representative. "The properties in question are heirless only because the Nazis and their collaborators wiped out whole families."
The declaration, signed in Terezin (site of the Theresienstadt ghetto where Jews from Czechoslovakia, Germany, Austria, the Netherlands and Denmark were concentrated), states that the Holocaust is a unique or "unprecedented" occurrence in several places. The document encourages countries to use heirless assets toward offering needy survivors special pensions and funds, as well as social security benefits. "Only a part of the confiscated property has been recovered or compensated for," the statement read. It also spoke about the importance of Holocaust education, the need to retrieve looted art, to identify and protect Jewish burial sites, and to release archive materials.
By recognizing the need to give back heirless property, Merhav said, non-EU countries have taken a step toward acceptance into the continental forum.
The participants at the Prague conference agreed to form an international body entrusted with facilitating an effort to develop guideline practices for restitution. The new organization, the European Shoah Legacy Institute in Terezin, was tasked with issuing a more practical proposal for restitution by June 30 next year.