It is particularly noteworthy that Germany and Austria have established future foundations as part of these agreements to provide funding for projects of education and tolerance, as a way of honoring Holocaust victims and other victims of Nazi persecution and bringing to our problems today the lessons to be learned from the Holocaust. The German agreement created the “Foundation Remembrance, Responsibility, and the Future” to fund projects of remembrance and tolerance. Likewise, the French government established a Foundation with a similar purpose.
In addition to the eight billion dollars, individual countries undertook to resolve Holocaust era claims by creating national commissions. Most notable in this regard are the commissions and programs established by France, the Netherlands and Belgium. If we add the commissions of these three countries, the additional amounts would add another 790 million Euro, or 1.1 billion dollars, to the eight billion dollars achieved in negotiations in which the United States played a facilitative role: France (CIVS): 410 million Euro to over 25,000 claimants, including 38 million Euro in payments from the 2001 French Agreement; Belgian (Buysse Commission): 35.2 million Euro to 5,210 claimant cases; and the Netherlands (Maror Foundation): 346.7 million Euro to about 36,500 claimants.
Swiss Bank Settlement
Regarding the Swiss banks, I went to Basel and met with the Swiss Bankers Association following the June 1995 Wall Street Journal story that reported that Holocaust survivors had found that the Swiss banks failed to provide assistance in tracking down the accounts of their relatives who had been murdered by the Nazis and which had been dormant for decades. The article led to accusations that the Swiss banks had profited from the assets of Nazi victims.
Earlier, Edgar Bronfman, then president of the World Jewish Congress, separately met with the President of the Swiss Bankers Association (the SBA) regarding these dormant accounts. The President of the SBA told the Jewish leaders that Swiss banks could find only 774 accounts with a total value of 32 million dollars, the same numbers they gave to me when I got involved. Such an underestimation of the numbers of dormant accounts, and their undervaluing, ultimately led to the filing of class action lawsuits in U.S. federal courts seeking recovery of the dormant accounts.
In addition, press reports emerged regarding the dormant accounts highlighting the role of Switzerland in converting what they knew to be looted Nazi gold into Swiss francs, and which Germany used to purchase critical war materials to sustain their war effort. These press stories led to several hearings in the U.S Congress in 1996 and in 1997.
The Swiss banks knew that the negative publicity required a rapid resolution of these claims. The banks took the initiative to set up a special committee, chaired by former Federal Reserve Board Chairman Paul Volker, to identify and pay legitimate claims for the dormant accounts. After a thorough audit with major accounting firms over several years of all Holocaust-era accounts, the Volcker Commission published 21,000 bank accounts which were most likely to be owned by Holocaust victims who fled the Holocaust, out of an even larger group of some 54,000 accounts, which had some possible Holocaust linkage-- a far cry from the 774 accounts they initially divulged. The continuing negative publicity, and the need for Swiss banks to respond to the lawsuits, led them to ask that I facilitate a negotiated settlement of the lawsuits. These negotiations broke down over the amount of the settlement, but they quickly resumed. Ultimately, an agreement was reached that provided for 1.25 billion dollars to be supervised by a U.S. court.
The Swiss Bank Settlement can be readily reviewed on the web site that is maintained by the federal district court for the Eastern District of New York. The current distribution of funds as of June 2009 is as follows:
|Bank Deposit Claims:||$551 mn to 17,571 claimants|
|Looted Assets Class whose needy members receive Social Services:||$205 mn to 228,000 persons|
|Slave Laborers in German and Swiss firms:||$288 mn to 198,000 persons|
|Refugees denied entry into Switzerland:||$ 12 mn to 4,200 persons|
|Insurance awards:||$ 1.3 mn to 112 persons|
|Victims List Program (names of victims):||$ 10 mn|
|Allocated or Distributed:||$1,067 mn to over 449,000 claimants|
|Unallocated to date:||$183 mn|
In addition, $169 million was committed to humanitarian programs that benefit survivors worldwide.
ICHEIC as an organization formally ceased operations in March 2007. The most important development in the last several months has been the commitment of all the companies that participated in ICHEIC to continue to process claims under a relaxed standard of proof. That is, despite the close down of ICHEIC, anyone who believes that an ICHEIC insurance company has failed to pay a claim may send his application to the company or to the Holocaust Claims Processing Office of the New York State Banking Commission. Alternatively, in cases involving a German company which cannot be identified, the claimant can also send the claim to the German Insurance Association (known by its German acronym, the GDV), an umbrella organization for 468 German and non-German insurance companies who are doing business in Germany. In addition, similar commitments have been made by those insurance companies that either joined or cooperated with ICHEIC, including the Italian insurer Generali and insurance companies in the Netherlands. The German Insurance Association has indicated that it has received some 99 additional claims applications since the close down of ICHEIC more than 2 years ago. It has researched most of them, and four policies were paid by the companies. Some are still being reviewed. Most of the remainder were rejected because they had been paid previously or because no information could be found regarding the policy, despite its research efforts. The GDV will continue to publish statistics on its website regarding post-ICHEIC claims processing.
KEY COUNTRY REPORTS
A number of countries have submitted reports on developments related to Holocaust assets since the 1998 Washington Conference. I will only briefly comment on a few of them:
Pursuant to a July 2000 agreement with the United States, and commitments made to several other countries and Non-Governmental Organizations, Germany created a foundation that would make payments to former laborers who were forced to work by the Nazi regime in German companies and on German farms. The German Foundation’s total capital was 10 billion D-Marks, or 5.16 billion Euro. Some eighty percent of the funds in this agreement went to over 1.6 million forced and slave laborers, the vast majority of whom were residents of Poland, Ukraine, Russia and other nearby countries, including both Christian and Jewish victims. This program has been completed. Another 10 percent of the Foundation’s funds went to paying claims for assets losses not covered by earlier agreements, including 281 million Euro for insurance claims. All of these funds have been disbursed to victims and heirs. Seven percent of the Foundation’s capital (about 358 billon Euro) went to a Future Fund, which is still operating today. Its mission is to promote human rights and understanding between peoples and to contribute to Germany’s upholding of its commitments to survivors.
The Austrian Government undertook several commitments to compensate Nazi victims following the 1998 Washington Conference. Indeed, in 1995, even before the Conference, Austria created a National Fund for Victims of National Socialism. This Fund paid out 5,000 Euro to over 32,000 victims as a gesture to all survivors. Following the 1998 Conference, Austria concluded a series of agreements with Nazi victims that established the following funds:
Including the 1995 payments, Austria has contributed over a billion dollars in recent years to compensation and restitution of Nazi victims. In this regard, I should also note that Austria has found a creative way to provide nursing home care to its Nazi victims. This involves its extension of the existing and very comprehensive Austrian social programs for the elderly to all former citizens and residents living abroad who experienced persecution. The Austrian approach could be a model for other countries, and I strongly recommend that all countries should consider such a model.
In addition, I would like to point to the very thorough work that the Austrian National Fund has undertaken to implement the General Settlement Fund agreement that provides compensation to Nazi victims for confiscated assets. The General Settlement Fund compensation program involves several different categories of assets and provides compensation to both survivors and, if appropriate, to their heirs. Implementation of the complex compensation program relied heavily on researching documents that had to be scanned. The legitimate heirs had to be identified through extensive research. Often, a claimant filing an application had no idea what assets a deceased relative may have owned. Tracing such information could only be done effectively by digitizing and storing it in a computer. The Austrian National Fund undertook this task and also created a special software program for this task. I strongly recommend that others look carefully at the Austrian software to determine whether it would be useful for implementing similar compensation programs.
I have already noted the January 2001 agreement concluded between the United States and France that has paid out 38 million Euro for the confiscated bank assets of Nazi victims. In addition, I should also note the very comprehensive French program that has been implemented by France’s Commission for the Compensation of Victims of Spoliations, or the CIVS, which began its work in 1999. As of the end of 2008, the Commission has recommended payments totaling 410 million Euro.
The looting of artworks is as old as war. The Roman plunder of the Temple of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., depicted in the Arch of Titus in Rome, was typical of warfare in the ancient world. But like the Holocaust itself, the efficiency, brutality, and scale of the Nazi art theft was unprecedented in history. Experts have estimated that as many as 600,000 paintings were stolen, of which more than 100,000 are still missing more than 60 years after the war. When furniture, china, rare books, coins, and items of the decorative arts are included, the numbers swell into the millions. There was nothing casual about this massive plunder of art. One of the Holocaust’s greatest ironies is that its most malevolent perpetrators were “barbarians of culture,” who fancied themselves to be a new cultural elite.
In addition to providing an impetus to compensation programs, one of the major achievements of the Washington Conference was the consensus on art principles. Our work on art restitution was part and parcel with our negotiations over the recovery of bank accounts, property, insurance, and slave and forced labor compensation.
At the Washington Conference, we obtained a consensus on a voluntary set of Principles of Nazi-Confiscated Art, which profoundly changed the world of art. What we achieved was important moral authority in five areas. First, the principles called on museums, governments, commercial galleries, and auction houses to cooperate in tracing looted art through more stringent research into the provenance of every item. Second, given the difficulty of producing evidence of ownership, the art community was asked to permit leeway in accepting claims on stolen art during the Hitler era. Third, there would be an international effort to publish information about provenance. Fourth, a system of conflict resolution would be established to prevent art claims from turning into protracted legal battles. Fifth—and least definite—attempts would be made to find a fair solution when owners of looted works could not be found.
Since none of these principles was legally binding, one may legitimately ask whether anything has really changed. The answer is unequivocally yes. The guidelines of the American Association of Art Museum Directors, or the AAMD, and the Washington Conference principles on Nazi confiscated art have profoundly changed the world of art. We effectively internationalized the principles of the Association of Art Museum Directors, or the AAMD. Phillippe de Montebello, then director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, said “the art world [will] never be the same again.” The principles produced profound change in the way museums, galleries, and auction houses deal with art that was transferred in Europe between 1933 and 1945. What the conference did was provide international attention and legitimacy to the return of looted Nazi art. The imprimatur of forty-four countries including the United States—the world’s largest single art market—was placed on what became known as the Washington Principles, and placed everyone in the art market on notice that art recovery could no longer be ignored.
Today, auction houses conduct thorough research on artworks that they bring to market, museums examine the provenance of any prospective acquisitions carefully, and private collectors consider the prior history of works they have under consideration. Many museums, galleries and auction houses around the world now perform substantial provenance research if the art work was transferred in Europe during the period 1933-1945, and review their own inventory of art to see if any were suspect. Some 164 contributing U.S. art museums have developed a creative web “search engine,” with over 27,000 works posted, which allows potential owners of Nazi-looted art to input their claim into one place, and have it considered by all the museums linked to the search engine. This is a major change from the practices of prior decades.
The 1998 Washington Conference on Holocaust Era Assets created an upsurge of political will to deal with the entire range of Holocaust-related issues. One of the great success stories has been the Task Force on International Cooperation for Holocaust Education, Remembrance, and Research. It has focused on the need for new generations, especially in Eastern Europe, where most of the Holocaust was perpetuated, to be taught the history of the Holocaust. The 2000 Stockholm Declaration bolstered the Task Force, then in its infancy, and committed current and future members to adhere to a set of principles dealing with all three areas of its mandate.
Today this 27-nation body groups together educators, museum experts, and academics, along with diplomats and other governmental representatives, to promote improved methods of education about the Holocaust and its relevance to modern society. Relying on the endeavors of Holocaust experts who volunteer their services, the Task Force has mounted over 200 projects, mostly teacher training seminars. These have had a tremendous multiplier effect, as returning teachers have become master teachers within their high schools and communities. Relying on the modest contributions of member countries, several million Euros have been devoted to these undertakings in the past six years.
Research projects funded by the Task Force have produced important works by preeminent scholars, along with new documentaries on the Holocaust. The Task Force provided a major impetus for the opening of the International Tracing Service Archive at Bad Arolsen. This dynamic entity has recently focused on the preservation of historic sites, including Auschwitz-Birkenau and the thousands of sites where Jews were murdered.
The Task Force has also become a robust voice which carries increasing moral authority. When incidents of Holocaust denial arose in 2006, the Task Force Chair, on behalf of the membership, issued a strong rebuttal that was carried widely on European television and reported in the newspapers on several continents. The Chair of the Task Force also spoke out on the genocide in Darfur. Earlier this week, meeting in Oslo, the working groups of the Task Force initiated first steps toward using its resources to combat the worrisome rise in anti-Semitism.
The influence of the Task Force is certain to mount in the years ahead, and one could anticipate a membership of well over 30 countries in the next few years. In its 10 years of existence, the Task Force has not only increased its membership, but has also expanded its influence in the international community. Its agenda is multifaceted and of an enduring character, and its mission will continue to be critical for many years to come.
WHAT REMAINS TO BE DONE
With all that has been accomplished, some may wonder why, nearly 65 years later, we are still addressing restitution and compensation issues. It is because our work to rectify the wrongs of the Holocaust remains highly incomplete, and because many civilian victims of Nazi barbarism continue to live in terrible and unacceptable circumstances today. This is not intended to disparage the extensive efforts in the immediate post-war years to provide compensation to Nazi victims. Germany has provided some 60 billion Euros in compensation over the years since its establishment. Other countries which were allied with the Nazis or were occupied by Nazi forces made some limited efforts as well, but many victims were left out of these post-war programs.
Let me now turn to the work that remains to be done. For all that has been accomplished in some areas, like private and communal property and restitution and compensation, we have barely scratched the surface in Central and Eastern Europe; social needs for survivors are greater than ever; and art restitution and recovery are disappointing. Meeting these and other challenges must be the work of the Prague Conference, including our efforts to make the Terezin Declaration a truly meaningful document in the lives of Holocaust survivors and other victims of Nazi persecution.
Our first priority must be to deal with the social needs of survivors, many of whom live in poverty and deprivation, including in my country, the United States of America. It is unacceptable that those who have suffered so grievously during their lives should have to continue to suffer in their declining years. Survivors who live in poverty often lack access to needed home care, medication, and dental care.
The data is not in doubt. In the US, Central Europe, and Israel, tens of thousands of elderly survivors today live at or near the poverty level. Many lack the basic necessities such as food, shelter, medicine, dentures, eyeglasses, home care, and other requirements of daily living. This is a worldwide problem. The unique physical and emotional injuries that have been inflicted on Holocaust survivors exacerbate this serious problem. As a worldwide problem, it requires a worldwide response.
In one 2003 study of Nazi victims living in the greater New York City metropolitan area, 36% of survivors lived in households with incomes below the U.S. federal government’s poverty standards, which in 2002 was about $9,000 for individuals and $12,000 for two person households. In 2010, the Claims Conference is planning to allocate over $170 million for social welfare programs for survivors in over 40 countries from restitution recoveries and agreements. While substantial, this amount will not be enough to cover the social welfare needs of survivors.
Governments should recognize the special needs of Holocaust survivors and other Nazi victims, who may be more vulnerable than the rest of the elderly population. Many special needs should be addressed, such as hunger, health care, and home care. Many face social isolation that could be overcome through intergenerational contact programs.
Some $205 million has been allocated out of the Swiss Bank legal settlement to 229,000 needy Holocaust survivors and other victims of Nazi persecution around the world. Judge Korman has discretion to decide how to allocate any additional payments among class members.
But the needs remain very large. Countries should also consider a variety of creative mechanisms that can provide assistance to needy survivors, including special pensions and social security pensions to non-residents; and the use of assets from heirless property. In almost all European countries, heirless property reverts to the state. This is likewise the case in many states of the U.S. But, in the case of heirless property owned by Holocaust victims whose entire family was killed by the Nazis or their collaborators and sympathizers, national governments should not be ultimate beneficiaries. Some substantial percentage of any funds obtained from such heirless property should be used to assist living Holocaust survivors and other victims of Nazi persecution, and to fund cemeteries, Jewish cultural property research, art provenance research and archival research. There is nothing that would better honor the memory of those killed and whose property was confiscated during the Holocaust era, and then appropriated by the state, than to use the proceeds for such efforts.
We have recommended a variety of mechanisms, like those created by Austria, to help deal with this serious humanitarian tragedy. Austria has expanded nursing home care that it provides to its citizens at home to all former citizens and residents who either were persecuted by or fled the Nazi regime.
France has developed a series of programs, which set an example for other countries. Having acknowledged its part in anti-Semitic persecutions during World War II in a landmark 1995 speech by then President of France Jacques Chirac, the French government set up the Matteoli Commission which was charged with identifying and evaluating the confiscations and spoilations which the Jews of France suffered. Between 1999 and 2000, the French government set in motion the three recommendations of the Matteoli Commission: restitution or compensation for the victims of property spoliations; either a pension or lump sum for orphans of deportees by the National Office of Veterans and War Victims; and the creation of a Foundation for the Memory of the Shoah for projects of remembrance and tolerance.
Insurance & ICHEIC
In insurance, despite the extensive efforts of ICHEIC, we need to give the victims and their heirs the confidence that everything has been done to track down insurance policies whose proceeds were confiscated by the Nazi regime and whose beneficiaries remain unpaid. To provide this assurance, ICHEIC companies should renew their commitments to continue accepting all Holocaust-related claims despite the close down of ICHEIC. In addition, the State Department’s Office of Holocaust Issues has been discussing with the New York State Holocaust Claims Processing Office how to better coordinate and facilitate the submission of new claims to insurance companies. The idea is not to reopen claims already decided by ICHEIC but to ensure that anyone who still has a legitimate claim not considered by ICHEIC can still find a way to submit that claim to the issuing insurance company or its successor. In the U.S., there is a need to achieve closure with all stakeholders on ongoing insurance issues.
While there has been some progress on the way the art market functions and some important artworks have been returned, there have also been some areas where there has been only minimal progress, or no change at all. The Washington Principles called for a number of improvements in the handling of artworks displaced in the 1933-1945 period. But a comparison of the provisions of the Washington Principles with the current reality is disappointing. It is high time that all states here fulfill the promise of the Washington Principles. Too few people have recovered too few of their Nazi-looted art works and too many remain in museums in Europe and around the world. We should not be misled by the few examples of spectacular recoveries into believing that there has been a systematic effort at restitution of looted Nazi art by public and private museums and collections around the world. It should be said here that the Washington Principles cover both public and private museums and private collections.
The 1999 Council of Europe Resolution 1205 and the 2003 European Parliament Resolution called for action to facilitate the resolution of claims and to encourage mechanisms which favor the return of art and property to their rightful owners. It is time for Europe to embrace the 2003 European Parliament Resolution and actually seek to take concrete steps to develop and implement common principles with respect to issues of looted art, cultural and movable property. These principles will make it more likely that claims may be understood and resolved more efficiently, more certainly, and more fairly. Hundreds of pieces of art have been returned to their rightful owners. Several countries, led by Austria, the Netherlands, and the UK, have actually incorporated the essence of the Washington Principles into their domestic legislation. However, large gaps have occurred in implementing these principles, from the use of technical defenses to prevent restitution, to inadequate archive access and/or provenance research by most countries and their museums.
Let me comment here on the Principles and the reality:
So the record of implementing the Principles is at best uneven, and the vision of an art world that gives the Principles a high priority remains elusive.
Some have been critical of the Principles because they do not include an enforcement mechanism. We were aware of that weakness when we were drafting the Principles, but we recognized at the time that it would never be possible to get all of the countries at the Conference to join in creating such a mechanism. Instead, we relied on moral suasion, and that the Principles embodied concepts of fundamental fairness that are part of U.S. and European law, and to some degree it has worked.
In a welcome contrast with these examples, some individuals and institutions holding art of questionable provenance have been amenable to discussing the claim and resolving the issue in an amicable manner. Frequently, the settlement provides that the object does not change hands.
I remain concerned about the number of cases that go through a lengthy litigation process. Frequently such proceedings focus on the jurisdiction of the court to hear the case and other legal matters, without ever getting down to the facts of the case. For this reason we urged in the Washington Principles, and I urge now, the use of alternative dispute resolution mechanisms.
Some holders of artworks have not honored the Principles and have gone to great lengths to retain objects to in the face of facially valid claims. In the United States, declaratory judgments are being used to make it more difficult for claimants to prove their ownership. Other holders of art have simply refused to consider claims, thereby forcing the claimants either to give up their claims or engage in expensive and difficult legal proceedings.
I am also concerned by the tendency of holders of disputed art to seek refuge in statutes of limitation and laches defenses in order to block otherwise meritorious claims even in situations where the claimant has not been provided with provenance information. Given the nature of the Holocaust and the Cold War that followed, many families simply were unaware or only partially aware of their heritage. The difficulty in getting documentation and the uncertain nature of the current restitution process creates further uncertainty. For a defendant to take advantage of circumstances totally beyond the control of the claimant compounds the grotesque nature of the original crime.
Other defenses have been used to deny restitution beyond statutes of limitation, like de-accession laws in which suspect art reverts to the state, and export control laws, which are used to bar the export of looted art back to their rightful owner, even when its ownership has been established.
A museum in Europe has refused to return a work of art clearly belonging to a Jewish family in the United States, using as its defense the questionable argument that it is a private museum, and it is therefore not bound by the Washington Principles. There is nothing in the Washington Principles which excludes private museums. Many private museums in the United States apply the Washington Principles fully. On the other hand, in our country, there are few choices short of litigation for unresolved cases as we lack a formal mechanism to try to mediate disputes before we go to court.
Let me begin my remarks on Immovable Property with a statement of principle:
No country, including the United States and the State of Israel, has a moral right to hold onto property which belonged to Holocaust victims. Where there is a living owner or heir, the property should be returned to them. Where there is no living owner, and the property is heirless and has been received by the state treasury, countries should consider using some portion of that property or income stream from that property to help needy survivors in their declining years.
The biggest gap we hope to address in Prague is to find an effective way to encourage governments in Central and Eastern Europe to pass legislation, and develop administrative claims processes, that would provide for the restitution or payment of compensation for confiscated immovable property. Remarkably, the issue of returning or compensating, in whole or in part, confiscated private property was largely ignored between the mid-1950s and the 1990s. We hope Central and Eastern European governments can implement a process to resolve outstanding real property issues consistent with national law and incorporating certain basic principles, such as non-discriminatory treatment of non-citizens, inclusiveness of all looted property, and a simple, expeditious claims and restitution process. Austria established an in rem claims process for confiscated property controlled by the state and a compensation process for looted property now in private hands, where restitution was impractical. These processes were part of the bilateral agreement I negotiated with Austria in January 2001 to settle the lawsuits against them. However, most governments in Central Europe have not established such a process.
While several countries in Central and Eastern Europe have created modest compensation funds in lieu of property restitution, virtually no country in this area has created a transparent non-discriminatory restitution or compensation program. While in rem restitution may be appropriate for confiscated properties held by the state, compensation is a better way to handle confiscated private property now in private hands, since displacement of current owners is not feasible. However, fairness to Holocaust survivors and other victims of Nazi persecution demands a reasonable compensation program, based upon a reasonable percentage of the fair market value of the property.
Most Nazi-confiscated Jewish real property is located today in Poland. The post-war communist governments held onto these Nazi-confiscated properties. Over the past 10 years, the United States has urged Polish governments to establish a claims resolution process for such privately-owned real property. Poland has repeatedly committed to pass legislation to establish a compensation process, but Poland has yet to enact such legislation. We realize actual restitution may in many cases be impossible now that these properties have been privatized and placed into the hands of owners who are not the legal heirs of the Jewish owners. Nevertheless, a fair process to provide a reasonable percentage of the current fair market value in the form of compensation should be made available.
It is noteworthy that Poland has shown positive leadership on Jewish memorial sites, like Auschwitz, Majdanek, Sobribor, and Treblinka, and on Jewish communal property restitution. Just this week, the Polish Government and the Polish Conference of Catholic Bishops has reached an important on the future processing of Catholic communal property claims. We look forward to seeing similar leadership regarding immovable property. But other countries in the region should do likewise. For all countries in Central Europe, having in place a private property restitution or compensation law is advantageous for them, as well as for claimants. It can remove clouds over title, broaden the availability of title insurance for smaller properties, often now unavailable, facilitate the privatization process, and enhance the rule of law.
We are hopeful that a new European Shoah Legacy Institute in Terezin, which the Czech government has proposed, will be given the authority at the Prague Conference to develop within a year of the conference a series of best practices and guidelines that will guide Central European governments in creating efficient, transparent, fair, and non-discriminatory property restitution or compensation processes that comport with well-developed principles of European Community law.
Some key property principles that I hope can be included in the Terezin Institute’s best practices paper would be:
Assistance for Claimants
Victims and their families are usually left to themselves to pursue their looted art and property. I recommend that nations consider establishing an office to facilitate their claims. For example, the New York Holocaust Claims Processing Office helps Holocaust survivors and their heirs from all over the country, with the research and filing of claims. The State Department is now considering ways in which it can improve coordination with other claims processing offices in the United States similar to its cooperation with New York. I hope other countries will also consider taking similar steps. It would be helpful if such offices could assist elderly survivors not only in filing claims but also in obtaining social benefits. All Participating States in the Prague Conference should consider establishing offices to facilitate claims for survivors for their lost property.
Judaica and Jewish Cultural Property
The wholesale looting of Judaica and Jewish cultural property during the Holocaust and the murder of 6 million Jews has meant that much of this historical patrimony could not be reclaimed after the War. We need to establish procedures that will lead to a return of this property, either to the original owners or heirs, or to appropriate religious and cultural organizations.
The first step would be to identify, catalogue, and publish times found in archives, libraries, museums and government repositories. A model should be found that would make possible the return of these items to their rightful owners. We also need to consider the international registration of Torah scrolls and other sacred objects. The goal is to restore sacred items to synagogue use.
Governments need to make archives of all kinds available to the fullest extent possible to the public and to researchers in accordance with established international guidelines. Israeli leadership in this area will set an example for other countries. Opening archives can be done with due regard to national legislation, including privacy and data protection. It is unconscionable to deny access to such archival materials to survivors and their heirs, which undermines any attempt at a fair or just process. Frankly, too many countries represented here today have not opened their World War II archives to the extent they should.
I am pleased to announce that the National Archives of the U.S., the U.K., and Germany launched a joint international project to extend access to records relating to Holocaust-era looted cultural property. By mid-2010, approximately 3 million documents will be digitized, indexed, and made available online for researchers worldwide. The plan is to include over time other archival and research organizations with pertinent holdings or databases. I hope other countries will join this important international effort.
Government authorities and civil society should ensure that the unmarked mass graves with the remains of Nazi victims should be identified and protected, and memorial sites protected. Jewish cemeteries should be demarcated, preserved and kept free from desecration.
The Terezin Declaration is an excellent document. But in the end, it must not become merely a series of high-minded words. It is our collective responsibility to convert these words into actions, to implement the non-binding promises into reality. The proposed European Shoah Legacy Institute in Terezin can be the first follow-up mechanism we have ever created to promote developments in all areas covered by the Conference, and to develop and share best practices in all of these areas. This will require political will on the part of our governments and our private sector – in Elie Wiesel’s words, to create sparks in our hearts out of the ashes. How we honor these voluntary pledges will speak volumes about whether we can rise to the challenge of making certain that in the 21st century we properly remember and honor those who suffered so grievously in the 20th century in history’s worst genocide and theft.