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Focus on Issues: Drive for Restitution Prompts Doubts About Holocaust Legacy

New momentum created by an international conference in Washington on Holocaust-era assets may help resolve some of the thornier areas in the ongoing restitution battle.

After the successes of the last few years in attaining compensation for looted gold and long-dormant bank accounts, Holocaust survivors may now see hundreds of millions of dollars more flow their way for looted artworks and unpaid insurance claims.

But at what cost?

That’s a question at least one prominent Jewish official has been asking lately.

Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, has been increasingly outspoken in recent weeks about his concern that money has come to dominate discourse and activity regarding the Holocaust.

“A new `industry’ has sprung up, spearheaded by lawyers and institutions, in an effort to get what they call `justice’ for Holocaust victims. As a Holocaust survivor, I question for whom they speak and how they define `justice,'” Foxman wrote in an op-ed piece published last week in the Wall Street Journal.

“The focus must remain on discovering the truth, on revealing and owning up to the past.”

It is a concern that other Jewish leaders and Holocaust survivors have also expressed as the historic record unfolds, claims mount and lawyers traverse Europe and Israel looking to sign up new clients.

For some, a brewing dispute over how to distribute a recent $1.25 billion settlement with Swiss banks — some lawyers for Holocaust survivors have demanded attorneys fees — has only fueled the argument that focusing on financial matters risks damaging the memory of the Holocaust.

Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, speaking at a ceremony at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum that opened last week’s conference, offered the delegates from 44 countries and 13 private non-governmental organizations something of a moral guidepost on the issue as they set about their work.

“Permit me to express my hope that we have not come here to speak about money. We have come here to speak about conscience, morality and memory,” Wiesel said, adding that memory is “our only fortune.”

“Usually anti-Semites say about us Jews that we speak about lofty things, but we mean money. Just the opposite: Here we speak about money, but we think of other things,” Wiesel said in his most prolonged reflection to date on the restitution efforts of the past few years.

U.S. Undersecretary of State Stuart Eizenstat, who organized the conference, said the agenda was set with the goal of recognizing that money must not be the final word on the Holocaust.

To drive home that point, he and Miles Lerman, chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council, urged the nations gathered at the conference to agree to strengthen programs for Holocaust education.

At the same time, Eizenstat — who himself spoke out last year against class- action lawsuits against Swiss banks — emphasized that legal action has played an important role in the restitution process.

“Some of these issues would not have come to people’s attention had it not been for suits having been brought, so I think it’s not appropriate to have a sort of broad-brushed argument against any class actions,” he said in an interview.

For his part, Michael Hausfeld, one of the lead attorneys in the class-action lawsuit that resulted in the Swiss bank settlement, said he thinks Foxman is “misperceiving how the law interacts with these issues.”

“He’s looking at the money as being the objective,” said Hausfeld, who is now pursuing litigation against firms accused of profiting from Jewish slave labor. “That’s not so. The money is only the means of illustrating the symbol, and the symbol is still justice.”

Foxman, who was traveling and could not attend the conference, said that despite Wiesel’s words about conscience and memory, “the conference was still primarily on material claims.”

“Hopefully we’ll bring closure to that so we can have a conference solely devoted to the moral and ethical implications” of the Holocaust, he said.

Last week’s four-day meeting in Washington, intended as a follow-up to a conference last year in London on Nazi gold, achieved some substantive progress on several key fronts not covered by last year’s gathering.

Looted art: The delegates agreed to a set of non-binding principles intended to provide a framework for identifying and publicizing artworks looted by the Nazis so that their rightful owners can claim them.

“The art world will never be the same in the way it deals with Nazi-confiscated art,” Eizenstat said at the conclusion of the conference.

Russia, in a symbolic move following a commitment to identify and return looted art, turned over three secret documents detailing art looted from Austrian Jews.

France, stung by criticism from the World Jewish Congress and others for the way it has handled the looted art issue, said that if it had not tracked down wartime owners of looted art by the end of next year, it would consider proposals for providing restitution. It continued to reject calls by the WJC to auction more than 2,000 looted works to benefit Holocaust survivors.

Insurance claims: Most of the nations gathered endorsed a newly created international commission, which would include insurance groups, government officials and Jewish representatives, as the best mechanism for dealing with unpaid life and property insurance claims dating back to the Holocaust era.

So far, six European firms have joined the commission and pledged $90 million into an escrow fund from which future claimants will be paid.

The delegates urged other companies to join the commission, adding that they want to see pending class-action lawsuits against insurance carriers resolved through the commission’s activities.

Communal property: No consensus was reached on how to expedite the process of settling claims to religious and other communal properties confiscated by the Nazis.

Eizenstat said that while some countries have recognized their obligation to return confiscated property, “there remains in some countries a lukewarm commitment to completing quickly the work at hand.”

Poland said it would consider hosting a conference on communal property restitution — a move that Eizenstat called “encouraging.”

Archival access: The United States urged all the delegations to open all public and private archives pertaining to the Holocaust by the end of next year.

Most nations pledged cooperation, but the Vatican continued to resist appeals for disclosure.

Holocaust education: Officials from the United States, Israel, Sweden, Britain and Germany announced the first intergovernmental effort to promote Holocaust education, remembrance and research around the world.

Sweden offered to host an international conference next year or in early 2000 on international Holocaust education.

More conferences: In addition to conferences on Holocaust education and communal property, follow-up conferences were proposed for dealing with looted art, slave labor, and racism and anti-Semitism on the Internet.

The possibility remained open that a third international conference on Holocaust assets could be convened next year, perhaps in Jerusalem.

Officials also proposed creating a comprehensive Internet site that would pool all reports and documents on Holocaust-era assets.

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