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Closing Plenary Session Remarks at Prague Holocaust Era Assets Conference

Stuart E. Eizenstat
Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs
Head of U.S. Delegation to the Prague Holocaust Era Assets Conferences
Prague , Czech Republic
June 29, 2009


The Czech government in general, Sasha Vondra, my partner at the Washington Conference, deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Tomas Pojar, Ambassador Milos Pojar, and Denisa Haubertova in particular, deserve enormous credit for conceiving and organizing this remarkable, historic Conference. But permit me to say that the other parent of the Prague Conference is our own Ambassador Christian Kennedy, the head of the State Department’s Office of Holocaust Issues, who, along with a dedicated staff, was an integral part of the planning process from the start.

The Prague Conference has far exceeded any of the previous four international conferences in which I participated in several respects:
  • The preparation was the most extensive and far reaching in obtaining input from experts and stakeholders genuine input;

  • The Terezin Declaration is the most comprehensive, detailed, and responsive to all the major issues in promoting Holocaust justice;

  • The European Shoah Legacy Institute at Terezin will provide the first-ever follow-up mechanism, with a specific task to develop by June 30 of next year voluntary best practices and guidelines in all the areas covered by the Terezin Declaration, beginning with restitution and compensation of wrongfully seized immovable (real) property.

This Terezin Declaration is a tribute to all the delegations, but especially the countries that composed the Friends of the Chair, and have been for months deeply engaged for months in drafting the Terezin Declaration. I have been inspired by their commitment to consensus, and to action.

So where do we go from here? The survivors are in their waning years. How do we convert the moral commitments in the Terezin Declaration into actions which will make a difference, sooner rather than later, in the lives of survivors and their families, and in preserving the memory of the Holocaust and imparting its lessons for future generation?

Let me suggest the following:

  1. 1. We must deal as a first imperative with the dire social needs of tens of thousands of Holocaust survivors who lack access to basic necessities. It is unacceptable that they should live out the balance of their days in hardship, after spending their early years in barbarous conditions. The unique physical and emotional injuries inflicted on them have created complex health care problems, and poverty makes this bad situation worse. Governments, working with local and international Jewish social service organizations and survivor groups, should develop national plans for their medical and home care. This applies to the U.S. as well where a staggering percentage live at the or below poverty level. We owe this to those who depend on us for their quality of life in their remaining years.

    The special programs of the Czech Republic, Austria, and France are positive examples. But the most significant way to provide funds for social needs in those countries which have heirless property is to use a significant portion for survivors; nothing would better honor the victims than to know that their property is being used for their surviving kinsfolk.

  2. Full and immediate access to all official and private archives is absolutely essential, whether national, regional or local, as well as access to vital statistics, estate, and post-war compensation records, and immovable and cultural property records in order to give life to the Terezin Declaration. Without archival openness, we cannot achieve the promise of the Washington Conference Principles on Art; efforts at Holocaust education, remembrance and memorialization would be hampered; and property restitution and compensation will be severely limited. All of this depends on archival openness. Germany, which has done more than any country to come to terms with its past, could set an excellent example by creating effective finding aids to make more accessible the Jewish property registration forms required by the odious 1938 law, and by also creating lists of the contents of previously processed claims under German compensation programs.

  3. It is time to take the extraordinary work of the International Task Force on Education and Remembrance (ITF), ably chaired now by Tom Eric Vraalsen of Norway, to a new level, beyond its important work for teachers and students in 27 nations. The Holocaust was a failure at all levels of society. Member states of the ITF should emulate the work of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, and develop educational programs aimed not only at students but also for law enforcement officers, the military, judges, and diplomats, which enable those who safeguard our common democratic values to understand the lessons of the Holocaust to combat the contemporary upsurge of anti-Semitism, and to protect human rights in carrying out their professional responsibilities.

  4. As a former Ambassador and admirer of the European Union, I call on the EU to take a greater leadership role on Holocaust issues, developing best practices and encouraging their implementation by all member states on the dire social needs of survivors; return of looted private and communal property; art restitution; and access to archives. The Holocaust was planned and executed in Europe, and the vast majority of the looted property remains in Europe. In addition to their admirable Holocaust education initiatives, at this late hour, it is time for the EU to take enhanced action on behalf of a united Europe in peace, West, Central and East, for the first time in European history. The European Commission’s Joint Declaration with the Czech government supporting the Terezin Institute is a useful step forward. The 2003 European Parliament Resolution (A5-408/2003) on looted cultural property and art called on the European Commission to develop common principles on access to public and private archives, proof of ownership, and alternate dispute resolution mechanisms. Sadly, none of these have happened. And in the US we are badly in need of an expert advisory group, modeled on the UK’s, to assist claimants and museums to resolve ownership disputes without resort to costly litigation.

I would like to thank all governments for participating and urge that all of us act together to make the promises of the Terezin Declaration reality for the justice of survivors and memory of Holocaust.

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