At the Holocaust Era Assets Conference taking place in Prague this week, attended by 49 countries, the Israeli delegation hopes to convince Eastern European states that they should do their part to make sure the looted property of the murdered Jewish communities be at least symbolically restored to the Jewish people, and that survivors of the Holocaust be allowed to age in dignity.
"My message is to convey a sense of urgency," Diaspora Affairs Minister Yuli Edelstein, who heads the Israeli delegation, said by phone from Prague. "We are calling on countries not to wait another 10 years to evaluate property and negotiate restitution. Even young children during the Holocaust are elderly pensioners now. Countries [where large amounts of stolen Jewish property is situated] should establish funds now for needy survivors."
But Eastern European states have resisted such claims, arguing that they were themselves victims of Nazi occupation and murder, and then suffered for two generations under Communist dictatorships. In some countries, such as Poland and Lithuania, the sheer size of the pre-Holocaust community and its near-complete annihilation mean that total restitution would likely be prohibitively expensive for the countries' economies and would be made to non-heir successors.
Jewish communities in these countries now number just a few thousand members at most.
"We don't claim [these countries] are the ones who attacked the Jews," said Edelstein. "It's clear that in many cases, the situation is complex. But it's also undeniable that someone has benefited from the land, the artworks, the insurance policies. Those who enjoyed the benefits of the confiscated property of dead and disinherited Jews should pay some restitution for that to the Jewish people."
Edelstein added that funds would go to the welfare of elderly survivors, "wherever they live, in Israel, the US, Canada or Ukraine. They're all survivors and deserve the same restitution."
Another crucial question for Jewish groups is gaining international cooperation on looted art. Most of the nations attending the Prague conference also participated in a 1998 Washington Conference on Nazi-confiscated art and were signatories to the nonbinding declaration known as the Washington Principles.
According to the New York-based Claims Conference (the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany) and the Israel-based World Jewish Restitution Organization, since 1998, only a third of the countries in attendance in Prague "have made major or substantial progress towards implementing the Washington Conference Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art."
In a statement, the organizations called for "the return or registration of items of Judaica, especially Torah scrolls," from the period.
"Without full and open provenance research and transparent claims processes, artworks with questionable histories will continue to be a stain on the reputations of governments and owners," Claims Conference chairman Julius Berman said, referring to the presence of stolen works of art in numerous national galleries and museums, including in Prague itself.
In particular, Berman called for "international dedication to locating Jewish holy and ritual items," which the statement said were "of even greater moral importance" than looted artworks. "This is particularly true in regard to Torah scrolls and other objects that carry a quality of holiness. At the very least there should be full public knowledge of where all looted and lost Judaica is located," the statement said.
"In Eastern European countries large amounts of Judaica remain with governmental institutions," the groups noted.
"No mechanism was established to monitor progress by the 44 governments that endorsed the Washington Conference Principles," the organizations complained, and recommended the establishment of mechanisms and guidelines to help launch the retrieval process.