Thank you, Stu, for that wonderful first-hand account of the origins of the Terezin Declaration and the unfinished area of looted art as well as other areas. Thank you also to Nicolas, for perfectly setting out the context for our remarks, and of course my deepest thanks to Robert Rehak and the Czech government for organizing this important conference.
I’m going to use Stu’s remarks as a jumping-off point to talk briefly about U.S. legislation related to the Terezin Declaration and then about how we all might look to the future with regard to private property restitution and education.
In support of Holocaust restitution, commemoration and education, the U.S. Congress passed the Justice for Uncompensated Survivors Today (JUST) Act, which required the State Department to report on progress countries have made in implementing the commitments they made when they endorsed the 2009 Terezin Declaration on Holocaust Era Assets. The JUST Act report was released in 2020.
Congress did not require the United States to assess itself, but we have also tried to live up to our Terezin commitments. The United States has 16 major Holocaust museums and innumerable Holocaust research centers and memorials. In 2020, the Congress authorized $10 million for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum to develop materials for teaching the Holocaust within the United States. But we still have challenges: only 22 out of 50 states require Holocaust education, for example.
One of the most sensitive areas dealt with in the JUST Act is property restitution. I recognize how difficult real property restitution is. But there are creative ways to handle the challenge.
On the one hand, for communal property such as synagogues, community centers, schools, and cemeteries, actual restitution is in order, and there are many ways to approach this. Poland passed an admirable 1997 communal property restitution law, but approximately half of the 5500 Jewish communal property claims filed under it remain unresolved, and approximately half of the adjudicated claims have been rejected. Lithuania established a fund to support its remaining Jewish community. Another creative suggestion is to consider what has been done in Hungary, where an endowment created by the government can be used to preserve the Jewish heritage and culture of the country.
On the other hand, when it comes to private property, no one is suggesting 75 years after the end of WWII, that current residents of homes, buildings and businesses should be dispossessed or pay the original owners out of their pockets. But a government fund can be created to pay a small percentage of fair market value. There is also a symbolic value to some level of restitution or compensation –it is important for survivors and their heirs to have an acknowledgement that a great wrong was done.
There was little time to create successful restitution programs before the Communist regimes nationalized private property. But since the end of the Cold War, Holocaust-era confiscated property is often specifically excluded from post-Communist restitution legislation. In other cases, claimants were limited by citizenship and residency requirements, as in Croatia. Bosnia and Herzegovina and Belarus have yet to pass legislation that provides for the restitution of private property. Poland is the only European Union member state with significant Holocaust-era property that has not enacted comprehensive national legislation on for private property restitution or compensation covering Holocaust-era property. Romania has Holocaust-era private property legislation, but the claims process is difficult for foreign survivors.
But there has been progress since the JUST Act report was released. The Luxembourg agreement of 2021 was historic, in that it settled all communal and heirless property claims. Latvia passed legislation earlier this year providing 40 million euros to the Jewish Community of Latvia in compensation for communal and heirless properties. The fund will help Holocaust survivors in Latvia, restore Jewish heritage sites, and support research on Latvia’s Jewish history.
And that leads us to the issues of commemoration and education. There are, inevitably, fewer Holocaust survivors every year. Hearing testimony from survivors is one of the most effective ways to teach about the Holocaust. Since that will eventually be impossible, it is ever more important to find innovative ways to teach and commemorate it, particularly since there is an appalling level of ignorance about the Holocaust among younger people.
In a 2020 Claims Conference survey of Americans between the ages of 18 and 39, 56% could not identify Auschwitz and 63% did not know that six million Jews were killed. In Austria, 30% of people aged 18-39 believed that one million or fewer Jews were killed in the Holocaust. There was a similar lack of knowledge in the UK, France, and other European countries. The bright spot is that large majorities in all these countries felt Holocaust education should be compulsory.
Equally important as we look to the future is the need for accurate Holocaust history and commemoration, which is being challenged across Europe, even as Holocaust survivors dwindle in number and despite extensive commitments by many European governments to education and commemoration. Holocaust distortion is also fed by rising nationalism and xenophobia in some countries. We see the rehabilitation of historical figures who played roles in committing the crimes of the Holocaust. Some, like Jonas Noreika in Lithuania and Stepan Bandera in Ukraine, are considered national heroes because they fought against Soviet tyranny, but they also collaborated with the Nazis. Croatia still has streets named after officials of the Nazi-allied Ustaša regime, which killed tens of thousands of Serbs, Jews, and Roma. Some countries downplay or ignore the role of local collaborators in helping to perpetrate the Holocaust, as they try to develop a heroic narrative of their national history. But all countries, the United States included, need to face up to the reality of their history, both the bad as well as the good. Indeed, my own country is only now facing up to the fact that it made it difficult for hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing Europe, including Jews fleeing the Holocaust, to enter the United States.
As we consider how to fulfill our Terezin Declaration commitments in the future, countering Holocaust distortion and denial, particularly online, is becoming increasingly important as a component of supporting accurate Holocaust commemoration, and is an area my office is focusing on. We also working with our German colleagues, in the framework of the U.S.-Germany Dialogue on Holocaust Issues, to support best practices in Holocaust education and commemoration
The strength of the Terezin Declaration is in the breadth of issues it covers and in the commitment of its 47 signatories to fulfilling all of its commitments. We can honor Holocaust survivors by meeting the commitments we undertook voluntarily in 2009. Fulfilling restitution commitments while survivors are still alive is a direct acknowledgement to them of the great wrong that was done to them. And by focusing on accurate historical education and truthful commemoration of the Holocaust, we can teach future generations about our past, and about the horrors to which unbridled hate can lead.