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Op-Ed: Action, not talk, is needed on Holocaust restitution

WASHINGTON (JTA) — It is well past time for the international community to finally and fully do right by Holocaust victims, survivors and their families, and restore property stolen from the Jewish community by the Nazis during World War II or make proper compensation.

More than six decades after the end of the Holocaust, Jewish communities have made tremendous strides toward making themselves whole again. But the restoration cannot be completed until Nazi-occupied and Nazi-allied nations embrace full restitution efforts.

Homes, synagogues, stores, hospitals, schools and factories were stolen by the Nazis and then acquired by Nazi-allied and occupied nations after Germany’s defeat. At the Holocaust-Era Assets Conference June 26-30 in Prague, governments will report on what they have done in the last decade on looted assets, including the return of property to Nazi victims and their survivors.

The1998 Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets relating to the recovery of stolen art – including objects of cultural, historical and religious value, Nazi gold, Holocaust education and research and insurance, as well as communal property restitution – made limited progress in helping victims and survivors make claims on what was rightfully theirs.

The job is far from complete. Though the material evidence is all around, soon there will be no one left to point it out.

The calls for redress in Europe have gone largely unheard. According to the Institute for Global Jewish Affairs, the vast majority of assets remain unreturned, "despite numerous clear and explicit international agreements and country promises made during World War II and immediately thereafter." Only about 3 percent of Holocaust property has been returned, according to the group.

In many places, the process of restitution is severely flawed or nonexistent. Lithuania is one glaring example. The nation has stalled repeatedly on an agreement that would return communal property or provide compensation to the Jewish community.

More than 200,000 Jews were living in Lithuania before World War II, including more than 50,000 in the capital city, Vilnius. Now about 3,000 Jews live in the entire nation.

As the Jewish community is struggling to regain its footing, even after all these years, restitution of property or equivalent compensation would go a long way toward sustaining the small community. And yet, restitution legislation sits idle.

Notwithstanding the years that have passed, the Vilnius government is now speaking of deferring any compensation to 2012. Even as some other Central and Eastern European nations have acted to restore Nazi-seized property, Lithuania and other nations have failed to do so.

As the years go by, and history’s eyewitnesses fade away, it becomes ever easier to do nothing.

Tragically, there aren’t many ways left for justice to be served now, 60-plus years later. Of course we can’t get back the 6 million who were murdered. Nor can we ever quantify the loss of their progeny; there is no compensation for human lives and all they might have accomplished.

Property, however, can and must be quantified. It is a difficult task, but that should only serve to fortify our commitment to doing it right.

Government intervention is crucial to settling property matters, which have become more complex as the years have passed. In some cases, properties were destroyed, used as public buildings or are now in the hands of  "owners" three generations removed from the war who acquired the properties, empty of Jewish families or institutions, in the aftermath of the Holocaust. In such cases, financial compensation would be the right course.

The dark forces who would deny the Holocaust are growing, making it perhaps more important than ever to have full accountability through restitution.

Just two months ago, Iran’s Holocaust-denying President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was granted a world stage at a United Nations-sponsored conference on racism, emboldening like-minded revisionists to step forward. Settling property debts from the Holocaust would go a long way toward burying the deniers with undisputable facts.

Why should today’s governments be held accountable for the sins of their predecessors? Because these nations benefited from the victimization of Jewish communities.

Today’s governments can, and must, choose to make amends now. There can be no more excuses.

It is the ultimate test of a democracy to recognize its historical flaws and address them. The time to turn bromides to action is fleeting.

(Daniel S. Mariaschin is executive vice president of B’nai B’rith International, a founding member of the World Jewish Restitution organization, which is actively involved in negotiations for the restitution of properties, both communal and private.)
 

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