44 nations to gather in D.C. to discuss Holocaust assets

WASHINGTON, Nov. 23 (JTA) – At the conclusion of last year’s historic conference on Nazi gold, the United States called on the 42 nations gathered in London to act by the end of the century to bring closure to all issues related to the fate of Holocaust-era assets. The intervening year has yielded significant progress toward that goal – most notably the $1.25 billion settlement with Swiss banks. But as the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum prepare to host a follow-up to the London conference here next week, the work remains far from complete. The Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets, which again is expected to bring together delegates from 44 countries, including representatives of Jewish organizations and the survivor community, will delve into categories of looted assets that have not been as exhaustively explored as gold and missing bank accounts – namely artworks and insurance policies. The stated goals of the conference include sharing scholarly research related to Holocaust assets, prodding governments to search through and open all relevant archival records, and developing a broad consensus on future compensation efforts. While it remains to be seen how much substantive progress can be achieved, for many Jewish officials the central question is not what happens at the conference, but what happens after. “The concern is that momentum will be lost and, more importantly, that the practical implementation of whatever proposals or policies are considered will no longer be part of the ongoing international agenda,” said Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress. To protect against that, the WJC plans to call on nations that had dealings with Nazi Germany to take concrete steps to resolve Holocaust-era claims by providing a full accounting of all confiscated Jewish assets and establishing guidelines to compensate Holocaust survivors and their heirs. The WJC, offering what may be a more realistic goal than the one set by the United States last year, wants to see that accomplished in the next two years, with the entire claims process wrapped up within the next five years. To be sure, major progress has been made in the three years since the search for Holocaust victims’ assets began with Swiss bank accounts. The Swiss bank settlement, coupled with the various humanitarian funds that have been established, has already placed more than $1.6 billion in the pipeline for Holocaust survivors. Although only a small fraction of those funds has yet been made available – it will be about a year still before survivors can expect to receive payments from the Swiss settlement – when all is said and done, restitution payments are likely to amount to hundreds of millions of dollars more. European insurance firms have already agreed to set up a $90 million escrow fund, and more is expected to come as an international commission of insurance officials and Jewish representatives investigates the archives of the companies and establishes a mechanism for repaying claims. There are also untold fortunes tied to tens of thousands of looted artworks, many of them masterpieces, seized by the Nazis during their march across Europe. So far, researchers and museum officials have identified many of the stolen pieces, although scant progress has been made in developing a plan for restitution. But for all the focus on material claims, many of those involved in the restitution battle have been stressing that money must not be the last word on the Holocaust. Indeed, some Jewish leaders have cautioned that focusing exclusively on financial matters as the century comes to a close risks damaging the memory of the Holocaust. “One has to be very careful,” said Abraham Foxman, a Holocaust survivor who is the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, “so as not to deliver a message that this is the last chapter (of the Holocaust), you pay the bill, you close the books.” Next week’s conference intends to address the problem by proposing an innovative plan to promote Holocaust education, research and remembrance around the world. Over the past few months, a task force made up of representatives from the United States, Israel, Sweden, Britain and Germany has been developing education guidelines and working to adapt a new Swedish education booklet about the Holocaust for international use. In highlighting the importance of Holocaust education at the conference, officials hope to “give it the highest-level government imprimatur, to help governments on both sides of the Atlantic strengthen Holocaust education and remembrance programs,” said Bennett Freeman, a senior adviser to U.S. Undersecretary of State Stuart Eizenstat. Eizenstat is convening the conference together with Miles Lerman, chairman of the Holocaust museum council. “The participating delegations,” Lerman said, “should commit themselves to making sure that today and 100 years from now, there will be in place a process of teaching young people the dangers of bigotry and hatred and anti-Semitism.”

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