News Analysis: Last Chance for Holocaust Restitution?

By Dinah Spritzer (JTA)

Published June 30, 2009.
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It has the tone of a newspaper from Berlin in 1936, except it’s from Vilnius in 2009.

The face of a rabbi is enlarged on the cover of a Lithuanian tabloid with the words “Give it now!” emblazoned across the top. The subject, Rabbi Andrew Baker, director of international affairs for the American Jewish Committee, is cast as the villain, looking down on a miniature Lithuanian Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius, portrayed as defenseless at the hands of some Shylock.

The image, which appeared on the June 26 edition of the popular right-wing daily Vakaro Zinios (The Evening News), alludes to Baker’s demand that the Lithuanian government return Jewish property after eight years of promises to do so.

In lieu of restitution, Lithuania wants to pay just one-third of the value of Jewish property confiscated by the Nazis and Communists — $46 million — over 10 years and starting in 2011.

Lithuania’s Jews and their advocates, including Baker, are not satisfied.

“It is far too little, far too late,” Baker says.

The Lithuania case represents the stalling tactics, lack of political will and nationalist-fueled resentment of Jews that have frustrated efforts by Jewish owners, heirs and their advocates to recover property stolen by the Nazis and the Communists in Central and Eastern Europe.

The economic crisis has made it even more difficult to get local politicians to take action on restitution.

In a significant gesture this week, 46 countries signed a declaration at the close of a Holocaust Era Assets Conference in Prague aimed at easing the restitution process for Jewish property taken during the Nazi era. The Terezin Declaration is a nonbinding set of guiding principles aimed at faster, more open and transparent restitution of art and private and communal property taken by force or under duress during the Holocaust.

However, questions linger over what such a document can accomplish with only the power of moral force.

“Back in the late 1990s, NATO membership was a driving motivation for countries in Eastern Europe, who were told by the U.S. government that how they treated their Jews will be a key factor in their admission,” Baker said.

This was in stark contrast to the European Union, which did not make any demands for restitution. In fact, the European Union lifted a requirement for restitution that would have blocked Poland’s 2004 admission to the 27-country union.

Pressured by the United States and Jewish groups since the fall of the Iron Curtain two decades ago, most countries previously under the sway of the Soviet Union have made some attempts at communal and private restitution or compensation.

There are two major sore spots within the European Union: Poland and Lithuania. Poland, where 3 million Jews lived before World War II – the largest Jewish prewar population in any country – has no private restitution law for Jews or non-Jews.

In the area of looted art, progress has been much slower than for compensating the rightful owners of confiscated properties.

The U.S. government estimates that 600,000 paintings were looted by the Nazis, with 100,000 still not accounted for.

Forty-four countries agreed to another set of nonbinding principles on the return of looted art at a 1998 conference in Washington, but only four countries have made “major progress” in implementing the principles, according to the Claims Conference, and 23 have made no significant progress.

The Washington principles were supposed to ease the claims process and called for greater research into collections, the opening of archives and the removal of barriers for claimants, such as statutes of limitations and export laws.

Hungary, a signatory to the Washington agreement, is one of several countries in the no-progress category.

“The Hungarian experience may be described as a total and concerted effort by successive governments to keep the looted art in their museums,” Agnes Peresztegi, a lawyer with the Commission for Art Recovery, told attendees of the Prague conference last week, “even if it requires that the museums conceal or destroy archival evidence or deliberately lengthen negotiations – effectively delaying legal actions that would be filed against the state.”

In the Czech Republic, only direct heirs of deceased owners, not nieces or nephews, can make art claims, even though this contravenes Czech inheritance law.

In the United States, claimants often must wage lengthy legal battles against museums because there is no national arbitration commission.

In most countries, museums do not even know if their art was looted because they cannot afford to document the history of their holdings.

“Researching one painting cost us $800,000,” said Graham Beal, director of the Detroit Institute of Art.

To address these obstacles, the declaration in Prague calls for the establishment of a Holocaust institute in Terezin, where the concentration camp was located. The institute would study “best practices” in compensation, restitution, looted art research, Holocaust education, care for Holocaust survivors and combating anti-Semitism.

The institute would not monitor countries because it would have not have that power, according to the Czech government representative at the conference, Denisa Haubertova. It is not clear how the institute would be funded.

Conference participants, including restitution experts and Holocaust survivors, agreed that creating a central body for collecting information is a good start, but that time for effective solutions is running out.

“I fear this will not bring us any closer to the day when elderly survivors will get compensation for property,” said Ruth Deech, a Jewish member of Britain’s House of Lords who had grandparents on both sides of her family with substantial property in Poland.

Rather than declarations, she said, the European Union should create a fund immediately to deal with claims.

“In Britain we are subject to so many European Union directives,” she said, “why can’t there be one on this?”

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