On Tuesday, UK Special Envoy for Post-Holocaust Issues Lord Pickles and the World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO) hosted the first-ever international gathering of Holocaust envoys, to discuss initial steps in building a network of envoys across the world to address Holocaust-era property restitution. Also in attendance were Ambassadors, experts, and other dignitaries.
In 2009, 47 countries, including all nine countries that participated in the conference, endorsed the Terezin Declaration, which recognizes “the importance of restituting or compensating Holocaust-related confiscations made during the Holocaust era between 1933-45.” Almost 80 years after the Holocaust, however, only a small fraction of private and communal immovable and movable property illegitimately seized from Jewish victims has been returned or compensated.
The Terezin Declaration also affirms “the importance of recovering communal and religious immovable property in reviving and enhancing Jewish life, ensuring its future, assisting the welfare needs of Holocaust (Shoah) survivors, and fostering the preservation of Jewish cultural heritage.”
The 1998 Washington Conference Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art, endorsed by 44 countries, established principles concerning the restitution of artworks confiscated by the Nazis that were not subsequently restituted, including principles for countries to search provenance to identify stolen art, and to publicize the information.
At the London meeting, more than 20 international representatives from 10 countries discussed how to obtain justice for Holocaust survivors and their families, who not only lost loved ones but also had their homes, businesses, communal property, art, and cultural property seized during the Shoah.
Lord Pickles, Special Envoy for Post-Holocaust Issues, UK, said: “Often Holocaust survivors talk to me about personal items like books and spoons. Sometimes that is the only evidence on earth that the person existed…Their looted artworks are also in plain sight – on the walls of museums and private collections. Most often, people aren’t looking for money – they are looking for recognition, for dignity.”
“We have had to overcome the lack of political will in the past. US Secretary of State Blinken has made clear that he takes a great interest in this [Holocaust-era property restitution.] Sadly, today, the history of the Holocaust is being grossly distorted. We strive to address historical wrongs so we can achieve justice and fairness The question today is – is there something that we can do to help solve that problem? At this gathering we are looking for solutions to help move the needle and bring this to the attention of governments in Europe that need to do more,” said Mark Weitzman, Chair of Operations, World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO).
“The meeting was an important gathering of Holocaust envoys to discuss restitution and compensation and how to encourage countries in Eastern and Central Europe that have not yet done so to take action to address the injustices of the past…This is a powerful opportunity to do something right, something meaningful,” said Ellen Germain, US Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues.
“This process of restitution has been unfortunately long and slow. After the Holocaust, the highest priority was to take care of the Holocaust survivors. The next step was to bring the perpetrators to justice. Now it is the last part of the story, and we have a much bigger focus also on property restitution. The creation of this forum is very powerful because it sends a very strong message about justice,” said Ambassador Yossef Levy, Special Envoy for the Restitution of Holocaust Era Assets, Israel.