Prague Conference Attempts To Ease Holocaust Property Restitution


Published June 29, 2009.
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Forty-six countries ratified a document aimed at easing the restitution process for Jewish property taken during the Holocaust.

The Terezin Declaration, a nonbinding set of guiding principles aimed at faster, more open and transparent restitution of art, private and communal property taken by force or under duress during the Holocaust, was approved Monday at the Prague Holocaust Era Assets Conference.

It is set to be signed Tuesday, the last day of the four-day gathering organized by the Czech Republic under the auspices of the rotating European Union Presidency, which the Central European country now holds.

The document, whose signatories will include the 27 countries of the European Union, Canada, Israel and the United States, also calls for greater commitment to the care of Holocaust survivors, Holocaust education and Jewish cemetery preservation. Hundreds of representatives of government and Jewish organizations, along with historians, art experts and lawyers, participated in its drafting.

The first comprehensive, multi-country document of its kind covering the issue of land confiscation together with survivor care, the declaration states: ”Noting the importance of restituting communal and individual immovable property that belonged to the victims of the Holocaust (Shoah) and other victims of Nazi persecution, the Participating States urge that every effort be made to rectify the consequences of wrongful property seizures, such as confiscations, forced sales and sales under duress of property, which were part of the persecution of these innocent people and groups, the vast majority of whom died heirless.”

The document also commits countries to better monitoring of anti-Semitism, improved access to archives that facilitate looted art research, implementation of existing laws or creation of new systems to allow for the easier return of looted art and the opening of a new center in the former Terezin concentration camp to collect information on countries’ implementation of the declaration.

Christian Kennedy, the U.S. government special envoy for Holocaust issues, told JTA that ”The really hard work comes over the next year, when countries are to agree on more exact principles over exactly how the declaration should be best implemented.”

Some countries were singled out at the conference as particularly problematic. Among those cited were Poland, the only country in the former Eastern bloc not to have enacted private restitution or compensation; Lithuania, which has no communal property restitution program; Germany, which has only begun researching its stolen art; and Russia, which closes most archives to researchers and has made it impossible for claimants to obtain looted art.

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