Toothless declarations

Jerusalem Post 27 June 2009
By Marilyn Henry

There will be pomp and circumstance in the Czech Republic, but not much in the way of substance when diplomats meet for the Holocaust Era Assets Conference, which began on Friday and continues through Tuesday. Perhaps this is the way of diplomatic conferences, where key discussions and decisions occur beyond public view. But these events, with their lack of substance, are brutally disappointing for the Nazis' victims the forums had pledged to consider. 

 The Czech event is the first major international conference on Nazi-era losses since the 1998 Washington Conference organized by the US State Department. The Czech conference was intended to review progress, since Washington on looted assets, Holocaust education and other issues.

"More than six decades after World War II the terrible ghosts of the Holocaust have not disappeared. The perverse ideology that led to the horrors of the Holocaust still exists, and throughout our continents racial hatred and ethnic intolerance stalk our societies," Czech organizers said in a statement announcing the conference program. "Therefore, it is our moral and political responsibility to support Holocaust remembrance and education in national as well as international frameworks and to fight all forms of intolerance and hatred."

In 1998, at the opening ceremony in Washington, Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel addressed dozens of diplomats: "As you are about to begin a three-day introspection of your national psyche, may I first ask a few questions. Why so late? Why only now? Why this sudden concern for stolen money and fortunes? Why has it taken so long in fulfilling the biblical command that stolen property must be returned to its owners?"

Good questions - then and now, with another question: And what have you done since?

IN THE TWO years leading up to the 1998 conference, there had been a steady drumbeat of stories about how the Nazis and war-era opportunists had exploited or stolen from the imperiled Jews. Swiss banks had held Jewish accounts, German firms profited from slave labor and European companies failed to honor insurance policies.

The Washington Conference was hailed as a great success, and it was indeed remarkable that 44 nations had met for three days, a half-century after World War II, to discuss their policies and proposals on war-era looted properties. However, the only agreement they reached was a set of nonbinding principles on the identification and restitution of Nazi-looted artworks. This issue was important to national galleries and museums, but relevant only to a relatively small, elite number of Jewish families.

In the late 1990s, there was a lot of talk about pursuing justice for Nazi victims. But governments and their diplomats often seemed to forget that their pursuit was reviving victims' tragic personal histories, painful feelings of injustice and rage at past disappointments.

"The dead had disappeared. The property had disappeared," Haim Dasberg, a child survivor from Holland and a retired psychiatrist in Jerusalem, said in 1998. "All of a sudden, there's a chance to get greetings from them, something from beyond the grave.

"Imagine that your father or grandfather had an insurance policy. You want to have this connection with this lost world," he said. The international interest in restoring Nazi victims' assets had heightened, then dashed, expectations. "The old mourning comes back, the old anger comes back."

HOW MANY disappointments are Nazi victims expected to bear? Apparently one more: the Prague conference's concluding event, a declaration at Terezin. The declaration is a political document that calls for the restitution of properties; Holocaust education, commemoration and research; the protection and preservation of Jewish cemeteries, mass graves and death camps; and for dignified care for Nazi victims.

But, like the Washington Principles, it has no enforcement mechanism. In its declaration, the conference calls for a European Shoah Legacy Institute in Terezin to be a forum for governments, Nazi victims' organizations and nongovernmental agencies to develop guidelines for restitution and compensation. But the draft language of the declaration says the document is voluntary and its nonbinding guidelines should show "due regard for national laws and relevant international obligations."

While this would protect nations that already have made payments and restitution for Nazi-era losses, it also means other countries can ignore the declaration.

It seems, at best, that the conference participants will endorse a toothless declaration with a tour and photo-op at a concentration camp. At worst, this is a desecration of a holy site, where empty promises will be made over the blood of the dead.

However noble the goal, the Terezin Declaration is an innocuous document negotiated for months not for its character, but to avoid offending any nation. The same nations that in 1998 urged the world to hurry to aid aged survivors dallied over diplomatic niceties because they can't bear to leave an international conference without something that qualifies as an accomplishment. However, after so many vows to survivors, a consensus on a declaration in which nothing is guaranteed is not much of an achievement.

At this stage, on this issue, surviving Nazi victims - already accustomed to brutal disappointment - are entitled to blunt honesty. It is time for governments to identify which specific steps their nations are prepared to take - and which governments are not. Otherwise, the declaration is simply another reminder that unfulfilled pledges of justice, like unrequited love, are heartbreaking and bitter.
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