At the start of World War II (WWII), the Jewish population in the United Kingdom (UK) was approximately 370,000-390,000 people. During WWII, with the exception of the Channel Islands, the UK successfully resisted invasion by Nazi Germany and, as a result, property owned by Jews in the UK was not looted or seized. Though British immigration policy made no distinction between refugees and immigrants prior to the war, the government eased its immigration policy for certain Jewish refugees, and British aid organizations provided those fleeing persecution with financial, housing, and educational support. As a result, by September 1939, the Jewish population increased by 70,000.
Following the November 1938 “Night of Broken Glass” (Kristallnacht) across Germany, Austria, and parts of Czechoslovakia, the British government sped up its immigration process for refugees by issuing travel documents on the basis of group lists rather than individual applications. Jewish and non-Jewish organizations funded the operation. The Kindertransport (Children’s Transport), a unique humanitarian rescue program, operated between November 1938 and September 1939. Approximately 10,000 children from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, the Netherlands, and Poland were brought to the UK. The majority were Jewish. British citizens took in the children following an appeal for foster homes on the BBC Home Service. The final Kindertransport from Germany departed on September 1, 1939, when Germany invaded Poland, and the UK and other allied countries declared war. The last known Kindertransport from the Netherlands departed on May 19, 1940, when the Dutch army surrendered to Germany. Many children were orphaned by the war and either remained in the UK or emigrated to other countries.
The UK endorsed the Terezin Declaration in 2009, the Guidelines and Best Practices in 2010, and has played a leading role on Holocaust education, remembrance, and research. In 1998, the UK hosted the London Gold Conference to finalize disposition of Nazi‑confiscated gold from a number of European countries. Under an agreement negotiated by then-Special Representative of the President and Secretary of State on Holocaust-Era Issues Stuart Eizenstat, it was agreed that participating countries would donate the value of their gold to assist Holocaust survivors. In 2000, the British government established the Spoliation Advisory Panel to consider cultural object claims in the possession of UK museums or galleries. In 2009, Parliament passed the Holocaust (Return of Cultural Items) Act, making it possible for national institutions to return such objects. In 2010, the UK government appointed the first UK Envoy for Post-Holocaust Issues, responsible for the government’s strategic approach to Holocaust issues, including implementation of the Terezin Declaration. In 2015, the government commissioned a report on Holocaust remembrance and education in the UK, which resulted in a commitment to build a new Holocaust Memorial and Learning Center in central London. The UK also has a wide array of educational trusts, charities, and museums to commemorate and educate on the atrocities of the Holocaust.
Immovable Private, Communal/Religious, and Heirless Property
The Department of State is not aware of issues in regard to Holocaust-era immovable property claims in the UK. According to the UK government, no communal property was confiscated in the UK during WWII. The government also stated that it was unclear whether there was any heirless WWII-era property in the UK.
Between 1948 and 1957, the UK offered an ex gratia scheme to compensate victims of Nazi persecution from Germany, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria whose property had been taken by the UK government under the 1939 Trading with the Enemy Act. [In 1939, Britain re‑established its Trading with the Enemy Act that had been in place during World War I. The law froze assets located in Britain belonging to the “enemy.” This included the assets of persons from countries which had been invaded by the Axis powers but also included assets of Jews fleeing from continental Europe.] Funds they were not able to restitute were turned over to a “Nazi Victims Relief Trust.” From 1959 to 1961, the Trust paid persons who “had been persecuted before 1945 on racial, religious, or political grounds in European countries at war with the UK” awards of up to £1,500 (the equivalent of $4,215 in 1960), with the majority consisting of £500 (the equivalent of $1,405 in 1960).
Movable Property: Nazi-Confiscated and Looted Art
The United Kingdom endorsed the 1998 Washington Conference Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art. Very little looted art appears to have been brought to the UK. However, in 2000, the government established the Spoliation Advisory Panel to consider claims from owners or their heirs to items held by British national institutions. The panel’s proceedings are an alternative to litigation. In 2009, the Holocaust (Return of Cultural Objects) Act was signed into law to allow 17 national institutions to return items that were lost, stolen, looted, or seized from 1933 to 1945 to the rightful owners or their heirs. Prior to this, national institutions were under a binding statutory obligation not to deaccession such items. The 2009 Act extended to England, Wales, and Scotland, but not to Northern Ireland. There are no national institutions in Wales to which the act applies, and there are no national institutions in Northern Ireland. The 2009 Act featured a 10-year sunset clause; consequently, in July 2019, the government renewed the Holocaust (Return of Cultural Objects) Bill indefinitely. Since its inception in 2000, the Spoliation Panel has advised on 20 claims and 23 cultural items. Of these, 13 claims have been successful, and seven have been rejected.
The UK government has sought to build greater cooperation among states to examine how the process of returning stolen artworks could be accelerated. Experts from across the UK and Europe participated in the 2017 UK government-hosted “70 Years and Counting: The Final Opportunity?” conference and focused on efforts to identify and return works of art lost during the Nazi era.
Judaica and Jewish Cultural Property
The United Kingdom received 20 percent of the heirless items distributed by Jewish Cultural Reconstruction after WWII. Items were provided to institutions such as the Jewish Museum in London. The National Museum Directors Conference’s “searchable list of objects with incomplete provenance for the period 1933 to 1945” also lists museums with Judaica holdings. The British Library holds up to 12,000 books seized from German libraries and institutions between June 1944 and 1947 that may include looted Judaica. Libraries at major universities, such as the Cambridge University Library, the Trinity College and Girton College libraries, and the Bodleian Law Library at Oxford University hold large Judaica collections.
Access to Archival Documents
UK national museums have undertaken detailed research of their collections to identify objects from the Holocaust-era with uncertain provenance. The Collections Trust has made this research available online, and it is actively maintained by editors from the 47 contributing museums on behalf of the Arts Council of England. The UK also has access to the Commission for Looted Art in Europe, an expert nonprofit representative body dedicated to the issue. The two main auction houses, Christie’s and Sotheby’s, have restitution departments to determine the provenance of pieces sold via their establishments.
The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum cooperates programmatically with a number of UK institutions, including the London-based Wiener Library, which holds one of the world’s most extensive archives on the Holocaust and Nazi era. The Wiener Library contains more than one million items, including published and unpublished works, press cuttings, photographs, and eyewitness testimony. The Library, with government funding, maintains a digital copy of the International Tracing Service archive, which is open to the public. The Library also offers access to digital resources for educational purposes. The Holocaust Research Centre at the Royal Holloway, University of London, partners with the University of Southern California’s Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History on an archive of nearly 52,000 video testimonies in 32 languages and from 56 countries.
Education, Remembrance, Research, and Memorial Sites
The UK joined the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) in 1998 and was the first country to adopt the IHRA’s working definition of anti-Semitism in December 2016. The UK government established an office dedicated to Holocaust issues in 2010. In 2015, the government established the Prime Minister’s Holocaust Commission to recommend additional steps to ensure that the memory of the Holocaust is preserved. The Commission was tasked with finding ways to ensure that every generation has the resources and access to survivor testimony to learn how the acceptance of hatred and discrimination led to the most horrific violence. Then‑PM David Cameron established the UK Holocaust Memorial Foundation to implement the commission’s recommendations. These included a commitment to building a National Memorial to the Holocaust and Learning Centre in central London; the establishment of an endowment fund to ensure the continuation of Holocaust education; and the promise to audit, record, and safeguard the testimony of survivors and liberators. The government committed £50 million ($64 million) for the construction of the memorial; additional funding was being sought for the construction of the learning center. The total project estimate is £100 million ($129 million). The government plans for both the memorial and the learning center to be built in Victoria Tower Gardens, adjacent to the Houses of Parliament in central London. As of September 2019, there was no estimated date of completion for either project.
The UK has many memorials, trusts, charities, and education centers committed to the commemoration and education of the Holocaust. The Holocaust Memorial in Hyde Park is dedicated to victims of the Holocaust, and International Holocaust Remembrance Day events have taken place there every January since 1983. The Holocaust Educational Trust, established in 1988, works with educational bodies, Parliament, and the media to raise awareness and understanding of the Holocaust. As a result of the Trust’s advocacy, in 1991, England became one of the first European countries to make Holocaust education part of the high school curriculum. More than 39,500 students and teachers have participated in the trust’s Lessons from Auschwitz project, which includes a visit to Poland’s Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum. The Anne Frank Trust UK works to empower young people to challenge all forms of prejudice and discrimination via educational programs. The Holocaust Memorial Day Trust is a charity established and funded by the UK government to promote and support International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27. In 2018, approximately 11,000 local activities took place across the country. The permanent Holocaust exhibition at the Imperial War Museum tells the story of Nazi persecution of Jews and other groups before and during WWII. The National Holocaust Centre and Museum in Nottinghamshire is believed to be the country’s only museum dedicated solely to the Holocaust. It seeks to educate children about the Holocaust through an exhibit on children’s experiences entitled, The Journey.
The UK also has a number of leading teaching and research units. Among them are University College London’s Center for Holocaust Education, which combines research with programs specifically designed to enable teachers to meet classroom needs and challenges, and the Holocaust Research Institute at Royal Holloway, University of London.