An estimated 6 million European Jews were killed during the Holocaust, and billions of dollars’ worth of artwork, gold and property stolen by their Nazi captors. Sixty-five years later, countries are still working to make amends.
“The Holocaust was not only the greatest crime of murder in history, but was also the greatest organized theft in history,” said Paul Shapiro, director of the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies at the U.S. Holocaust Museum.
“There is no way to undo or compensate for the death of the victims and the suffering of survivors. There are ways, at least, to attempt to address the property issues — that’s the least that we can try to do,” said Shapiro, who also sits on the U.S. task force regarding Holocaust-related issues.
Since 1997, four international conferences have been held regarding post-Holocaust related issues, said Stuart Eizenstat, who served as the special representative of the president and secretary of state on Holocaust-era issues during the Clinton administration.They established guidelines for returning looted gold, stolen art, establishing a Holocaust education task force and returning stolen cultural property.
In the most recent effort, representatives from more than 40 nations met a year ago in Prague to discuss the issue. These nations resolved, in the Terezin Declaration, to have a formal set of rules regarding restitution drafted and signed within one year.
The same countries met again in early June in Prague and signed the final document to mark the 65th anniversary of the end of the Holocaust. The document called for signing nations to draft their own set of regulations for returning stolen property by the end of the month.
Eizenstat, who organized the conferences in Prague, said no one had dealt with the compensation for real estate before the Terezin Declaration.
“It was such an electric and sensitive subject,” he explained. “The notion of dispossessing [properties] was enormously controversial.”
The non-binding rules outline preferred methods of property restitution, including the legislation of a simple, non-bureaucratic process to reclaim property, and free access to archives to prove ownership.
On the same day as the document’s signing, Britain appointed Sir Andrew Burns, former UK ambassador to Israel, as its first-ever envoy to deal with post-Holocaust issues.
“The message that [Burns’ appointment] sends to governments around the world is that the UK thinks this is of supreme importance and urgency at this time,” said Greg Schneider, executive vice president of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany. “And that creates momentum that we can bring to bear on other governments.”
The new guidelines call on governments to hand over heirless properties to nongovernmental organizations, like the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany. These groups would sell the properties, using the proceeds to provide care for the roughly 500,000 Holocaust survivors.
One of the 43 nations that signed the document, Poland, has been criticized by Holocaust restitution advocates for not returning property quickly enough.
“Poland is the only major eastern European country that hasn’t had any (Holocaust restitution) legislation,” said Schneider. “In east Germany, a very high percentage has been or is being returned. In Poland, barely anything.”
Witold Dzielski, first secretary and liaison to the Jewish people at the Polish Embassy in Washington, D.C., rebutted the notion that Poland is dragging its feet. Massive flooding in southern Poland and the death of President Lech Kaczynski in a plane crash in April has preoccupied the country of late, he said, but a Holocaust compensation bill is awaiting revision in Poland’s treasury department.
“If you look at the [political] parties in Poland everyone would say that a compensation bill is a must,” he added.
Schneider contends that the urgency for restitution is at an all-time high because of the survivors’ ages. “This is the final chapter,” he said.
The guidelines also state that the European Shoah Legacy Institute will host a follow-up conference in 2012 to check the progress of the return of stolen property.