World Leaders Agree to Step Up Holocaust Restitution, Education
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World Leaders Agree to Step Up Holocaust Restitution, Education

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Jewish officials have called for action — and not merely deliberation — as representatives of 44 nations gathered in Washington for an international conference examining the fate of Holocaust-era assets.

The State Department and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum convened the conference this week to focus on a range of looted assets not covered by last year’s London conference on Nazi gold — namely, artworks, unpaid insurance claims, and Jewish communal property.

But, in a larger sense, Jewish leaders, Holocaust survivors, historians and government leaders who have been seeking over the last few years to write what has been called the last chapter of the Holocaust were looking to the conference as a gauge of the international community’s commitment to completing the historical record and providing survivors with a long-delayed measure of justice.

U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright opened the conference Tuesday with an appeal to the nations gathered to bring closure by the end of the century to the unresolved financial matters of the Holocaust by opening all archives, returning Jewish property and paying all claims.

“Whether we’re seeking the payment of life insurance to families of those who perished in the camps, researching art ripped from the walls of the museum in Warsaw or weighing compensation for a synagogue reduced to ashes in Czechoslovakia, the moral imperative is the same,” Albright said.

She struck an emotional and deeply personal note as well, invoking the memory of her Jewish grandparents who died in the Holocaust.

“I think of the blood that is in my family veins,” said the Czech-born Albright, who was raised Catholic but has said she discovered her Jewish lineage only last year. “Does it matter what kind of blood it is? It shouldn’t. It is just blood that does its job. But it mattered to Hitler, and that matters to us all, because that is why 6 million Jews died.”

Her voice breaking, she recalled the “innocent, irreplaceable people, people who loved and enriched life with their warmth, their smiles and the embrace of their arms, people whose lives ended horribly and far too soon.” She added that the research and restitution efforts are “about much more than gold and art and insurance; it’s about remembering that no one’s blood is less or more precious than our own.”

The hundreds of delegates gathered at the State Department gave her a standing ovation, and many said afterward they were deeply moved by her words linking her personal history to the work before them. The speech marked Albright’s most extensive public reflection to date about her Jewish heritage — a subject, she said, “for which I have not yet found, and may never find, exactly the right words.”

At the outset, it remained unclear to what extent the four-day conference, which was not intended as a decision-making forum, would succeed in prodding countries along the path toward full disclosure of their handling of Jewish assets and providing restitution.

Edgar Bronfman, president of the World Jewish Congress, urged the delegates to adopt “practical and immediate proposals to secure financial restitution.”

He warned against having another Bermuda Conference, referring to a 1943 gathering dealing with the issue of Jewish refugees that was widely regarded as a sham. “Let us establish an ongoing mechanism to verify that practical steps are indeed being taken, for this effort must not end with this conference,” said Bronfman.

There were some early signs of progress as the delegates, including representatives of Jewish organizations, met to discuss looted art, perhaps the most contentious issue surrounding missing assets. The U.S. delegation, led by Undersecretary of State Stuart Eizenstat, offered a set of principles aimed at forging an international consensus on how to match art with claims and resolve disputes over claims.

Russia, believed to be one of the leading repositories of looted artworks, surprised the conference when its representative pledged Moscow’s full cooperation to locate and return Nazi-looted art that was taken by the Soviet regime as reparations for its losses during the war.

Eizenstat, who organized the conference, called the Russian declaration “a real breakthrough,” adding that the other delegations also seemed to have a “collective sense of urgency” in dealing with looted art.

The WJC, for its part, said it wants to see governments that are retaining looted art either return the works to their rightful heirs, auction them for the benefit of Holocaust survivors or provide appropriate compensation. It singled out France, which has acknowledged that it has more than 2,000 looted artworks, but has returned fewer than three.

French President Jacques Chirac subsequently rejected the WJC proposal to auction the artworks, adding that France would search for the rightful heirs.

Earlier this week, a Claude Monet painting hanging in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts that is on loan from France was revealed to have been stolen by the Nazis during the war.

Ronald Lauder, chairman of the board of the Museum of Modern Art and the head of WJC’s commission on art recovery, told the delegates that an estimated 110,000 artworks worth between $10 billion and $30 billion are still missing, adding that he believes every large institution, art museum and private collection contains looted works.

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.

Underscoring that point, a task force of officials from the United States, Sweden, Britain, Germany and Israel called on all the countries represented to agree to strengthen programs for Holocaust education, research and remembrance.

“Some countries have already begun various educational programs, and we applaud them for these efforts,” said Miles Lerman, chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council, who co-chaired the conference along with Eizenstat. “However, we must aim to create a global network of Holocaust education that will be both general and country-specific.”

Meanwhile, as the United States calls on other nations to commit themselves to full transparency, it is also moving to take a closer look at its own dealings during and after World War II.

President Clinton on Monday named Bronfman as chairman of a newly created 12- member presidential commission to examine Holocaust victims’ assets in the United States. The commission will identify dormant bank accounts, artworks, insurance policies, looted gold and a range of other assets that made their way to the United States and provide a report to the President Clinton by the end of next year.

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