Prague Conference May Be Last Chance To Settle Holocaust Property Claims

By Nathan Guttman

Published June 24, 2009, issue of July 03, 2009.
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In what may be the final opportunity for many Holocaust survivors, the international community is launching a new effort to reach understandings on restitution of property that belonged to Jews in Europe before the Nazi occupation.

The Conference on Holocaust Era Assets, scheduled to open in Prague June 26, will put a new focus on the immediate needs of living survivors and on ways to use the compensation process to provide relief for elderly survivors struggling with poverty and hardship.

An earlier conference, held in Washington in in 1998, set international guidelines for restitution and the return of looted art. But that effort has stalled in many ways. The Prague gathering is seen widely as an attempt to repair and renew the process, which has largely gone off track due to the refusal of several Eastern European countries to adopt its principles.

The main problem is restitution of real estate.Restitution has progressed when it comes to art, insurance policies and Judaica. But according to estimates by groups dealing with restitution, only 20% of real estate belonging to Jews in Europe has been returned to its owners or recouped.

Since the 1998 Washington Conference, advocates have worked to convince European countries to provide full information about Jewish property and to enact legislation to support this process. But progress has been limited. Poland and Lithuania are still far behind in the process, and Holocaust survivor groups argue that it is still practically impossible to file claims in these countries. Ukraine also has been criticized for not playing a positive role in assisting with Holocaust-era claims.

Congressional Democrat Robert Wexler of Florida, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe and a member of the American delegation to the Prague conference, said there are “diplomatic opportunities” that can be used to pressure Poland and Lithuania to move forward on these issues. “There is a host of issues in which they work together with us on a bilateral level,” Wexler said. “I’m not suggesting that we are threatening other parts of our relationship with these countries, but the governments of Poland and Lithuania must address the issue of restitution for their own sake.” Wexler’s constituency in southern Florida has a relatively high concentration of Jewish Holocaust survivors.

“We don’t want to name and shame; that’s not the purpose of the conference,” said Jiri Schneider, program and media coordinator of the Prague conference. Schneider, a former ambassador of the Czech Republic to Israel, said one of the conference’s goals is “to take stock of what happened in the past 11 years” since the Washington Conference. Schneider added that one key focus of the gathering is to discuss programs for providing immediate assistance for living survivors.

The most significant effort to address these issues will be signing the Terezin Declaration, which is expected to be announced at the gathering’s conclusion, on the site of the Terezinstadt concentration camp. The conference will also set up the Shoah Legacy Institute in Terezin, which is expected to serve as a research and follow-up body for restitution and Nazi-era property issues. Organizers and participants hope the institute will fill in the gap left by the 1998 Washington Conference by providing an ongoing mechanism for addressing survivors’ restitution claims.

Among the practical solutions the conference is considering is a resolution to direct compensation for unclaimed Jewish real estate toward fighting antisemitism. Another suggestion, put forward by the Israeli delegation, is to make advance payments for survivors who had filed claims but might not live to see the process go through.

Still, any agreement reached and any language included in the Terezin Declaration will be nonbinding and is contingent on the good will of each country.

“What we are telling the host of claimants that are hoping the conference will solve their problems is that the most we can do is contribute to a mood that will be more positive for solving these problems,” Schneider said.

The run-up to the Prague conference, which has been in the making for the past year and a half, revealed ongoing friction between Holocaust survivors in the United States and Israel and their respective governments. The Prague parley was set up as a meeting between diplomats representing 49 countries and nongovernmental organizations. But survivors argue they have been sidelined, despite their stake in its outcome.

“This is typical of the whole system. It was planned and organized without the survivors being involved,” argued Samuel Dubbin, an attorney for the Holocaust Survivors’ Foundation – USA. Dubbin, who was involved in some of the biggest Nazi-era restitution litigations, said there is a fear among survivors that the Prague conference will serve only as a seal of approval for past decisions that failed to actually get countries to compensate Jews for lost property. “Survivors were always at the bottom of the totem pole,” he said.

Attempting to respond to survivors’ complaints, the State Department convened an open town hall meeting with Ambassador Christian Kennedy, the department’s special envoy for Holocaust issues. The administration also decided to include two survivors in the American delegation to the conference, which will be headed by Stuart Eizenstat, a former undersecretary of state and deputy treasury secretary. Author and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel also will be part of the delegation.

Israeli survivor groups raised similar complaints regarding their government’s representation at the conference. They also took issue with the decision to appoint Reuven Merhav to head the Israeli delegation, arguing that it could pose a conflict of interest. Merhav, they noted, also chairs the executive committee of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, which has been at odds with Israel over the use of German restitution funds. While the Claims Conference has disbursed funds for organizations dealing with Holocaust remembrance, a national inquiry committee demanded that the money be used exclusively for the support of living survivors.

Israel eventually decided to keep Merhav on as part of the 14-member Israeli delegation but appointed Yuli Edelstein, minister of Public Diplomacy and Diaspora, as its head.

Contact Nathan Guttman at guttman@forward.com


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