Hello, everyone. Let me begin by thanking the Czech government, both for hosting the first Terezin conference in 2009, and convening today’s event to measure our progress against the commitments made by 47 governments, including the United States, in the time since. I’d like to recognize our State Department Special Advisor on Holocaust Issues, Ambassador Eizenstat, whose decades of methodical work were not only a force behind the Terezin Declaration and its precursors, but have helped make their commitments on paper a reality for hundreds of thousands of survivors. We’re proud to have Stu and our remarkable Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues Ellen Germain representing the United States at the conference.
The last time my stepfather, Samuel Pisar, saw his mother and little sister was not long after the Jewish ghetto where they had been imprisoned in Bialystok, Poland, was burned to the ground. By that time, in 1943, his family had been forced from their home; several of his relatives and friends had been murdered; and his father, disappeared. He was just 13 years old. A stormtrooper approached Samuel’s mother and pointed to her engagement ring. “I want that,” he said. As she struggled to get it off, the soldier pulled out his bayonet and warned, “Quick, or the finger comes off.” My stepfather hurriedly pulled a bar of soap from his suitcase, spat on his mother’s finger, and rubbed it vigorously until the ring slid off. Samuel handed it to the soldier. He later wrote, “At that moment, I felt something snap inside me. I think I became someone else.” Moments later, they were put onto different trains – Samuel’s train bound for Majdanek concentration camp; his mother and sister’s to their death.
Among the immeasurable horrors the Nazis perpetrated against the Jews was their systematic dispossession. Of homes, businesses, land. Bank accounts, family heirlooms, works of art. And from all victims – personal valuables. In Samuel’s case: his stamp collection; his father’s pocket watch; his mother’s ring. The dispossession was part of the stripping away of a person’s humanity – of turning an individual into a number. But it was also part of a mass theft, one just as rigorously orchestrated as the mass extermination.
Like the killing, the looting depended on those who did nothing, and those who were complicit. Neighbors who occupied the homes of deported Jews. Banks that benefited from quietly holding onto accounts of murdered Jewish families. Governments and businesses that profited from Jews’ slave labor. In this way, the confiscation, seizure, and wrongful transfer of Jewish property served two goals: to enrich the Nazis; and to advance their genocidal project of eviscerating all traces of Jewish life and culture – from the headstones they pulled up from graveyards and used to pave streets, to the synagogues they converted into stables and warehouses.
As this conference is held, the need to provide some measure of justice for survivors is more urgent than ever. Of the approximately 275,000 Holocaust survivors alive today, an estimated 110,000 live in poverty. The youngest are nearly 80 years old, and we lose thousands more every year. Particularly for survivors living in poverty, a modest pension or compensation means being able to afford medicine, elder care, heat. The international community failed these people in their early years of their lives. We cannot – must not – fail them again in their final years.
And yet, a 2020 report by the State Department on the record of governments in meeting their commitments under the Terezin Declaration shows that progress has been uneven and, too often, insufficient. Some countries have failed to establish compensation or restitution processes. Others have limited eligibility to citizens. Still others have created processes so complex they’re virtually impossible to navigate. Poland, Hungary, and Croatia are among the countries that still have the greatest work ahead.
At the same time, several European governments have reached significant agreements with survivors – including Switzerland on unclaimed bank accounts; Germany and Austria on slave and forced labor, insurance, and property claims; France on the role of its national railway in deportations to concentration camps. And just last year, Luxembourg made a comprehensive agreement that included settling property claims where there are no heirs, because the Nazis murdered entire families. These countries’ progress is testament to what can be done for survivors and their families when there’s political will, and it offers best practices others can learn from.
This conference is also a chance to do that. There’s not a challenge governments face in restitution efforts that others here have not grappled with. If you need help…ask. Ask not only because time is running out for survivors, but also because of our enduring responsibility to their descendants.
Restitution and compensation are also ways of memorializing the truth about the Nazis’ crimes – and thus continuing to educate our people and the world about the Shoah, so that its hideous crimes may not be repeated. The history of Terezin is itself a stark reminder of the danger in the lies that have long been spread to deny or diminish the Holocaust. Theresienstadt was the only Jewish ghetto visited by an international delegation. In advance of the Red Cross’s infamous 1944 visit, prisoners were forced to plant roses, renovate barracks, and build fake cafes. To make Terezin look less crowded, the SS sent more than 7,500 prisoners to Auschwitz.
Today, Holocaust denial and distortion are again on the rise in Europe and the United States, where they are often coupled with anti-Semitism, xenophobia, and nationalism. History has shown that when the hatred of Jews rises, violence and attacks on foundation of democracy are rarely far behind. And these falsehoods have never had a louder megaphone than they do with the Internet and social media, which is why our commitments in the Terezin Declaration to Holocaust education, remembrance, and research are more important than ever.
When the government of West Germany passed a law in 1951 offering compensation for Holocaust survivors, my stepfather was indignant. He asked, “What value could I place on what I had lost? What price could I put on my stolen adolescence…my mother’s engagement ring ripped off her finger?” And yet, he ultimately decided to file a claim, which was awarded. He never touched the small payment, but later said, “It is all I ever got in exchange for my father, my mother, and my sister. As such, it is sacred to me.”
Compensation can mean different things to survivors and their families. For survivors in poverty, it can provide a means to living their final years in dignity. For survivors’ descendants, it can restore a piece of family history – and humanity – that the Nazis tried to wipe out. For communities, it can affirm that the unspeakable horrors they endured were real, and that those who were complicit or silent were wrong.
For these and so many other reasons, let us recommit ourselves today to meeting the righteous, just, and urgent goals set out in the Terezin Declaration – which are sacred not only to generations past and present, but to future ones as well. Thank you.