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Q&A with Eizenstat on Holocaust-era restitution

Stuart Eizenstat, chairman of the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute, led the U.S. government delegation to the June 26-29 Holocaust Era Assets Conference in Prague. (Dan Sieradski)

Stuart Eizenstat, chairman of the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute, led the U.S. government delegation to the June 26-29 Holocaust Era Assets Conference in Prague. (Dan Sieradski)

Stuart Eizenstat, left, with Nobel Prize winner and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel at the Holocast Era Assets Conference in Prague on June 26, 2009. (eu2009.cz)

Stuart Eizenstat, left, with Nobel Prize winner and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel at the Holocast Era Assets Conference in Prague on June 26, 2009. (eu2009.cz)

PRAGUE (JTA) — Stuart Eizenstat, who led the U.S. government delegation to the June 26-29 Holocaust Era Assets Conference in Prague, sat down with JTA for an interview on the eve of the conference.

The conference, organized by the Czech government, which held the six-month rotating European Union presidency for the first half of 2009, brought together representatives of 49 countries for what participants said was likely to be the last major attempt to compensate Holocaust victims and their heirs for art and property confiscated or sold under duress during the Nazi era.

Eizenstat, a lawyer who served as under secretary of state under President Clinton and recently was appointed chairman of the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute, is largely credited with getting Jewish property restitution started in the former Eastern bloc after the end of the Communist era. He also was the lead negotiator in the $1.25 billion settlement with Swiss banks in 1999.

In the interview, Eizenstat talks about the delays in property restitution in Eastern and Central Europe and criticizes the European Union for failing to follow through on restitution. He also takes Israel to task for not doing enough over the years for Holocaust survivors and their heirs.

A condensed version of the interview follows.

JTA: Critics say conferences like these on looted art and restitution are just so much talk and that they yield little action. Is this accurate?

Eizenstat: So what happened as a result of the 1998 Washington conference on looted art? Philippe de Montebello, then president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, said that as a result of the conference the art world would never be the same again. Museums all over the world — over 120 in the United States alone — now research the provenance of their acquisitions to see if they might have been looted. Hundreds of pieces of art have been returned in Austria, and dozens in the United States and other countries.

JTA: Nonetheless, of the 21,000 pre-World War II communal properties confiscated from Jewish communities in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, only 16 percent have been returned or compensated, according to the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. Less than 20 percent of privately Jewish-owned real estate has been returned or compensated. Is that success?

Eizenstat: It’s success only in comparison to what would have otherwise happened, which is nothing. We are trying to address issues we have never addressed before at previous conferences. There are very few countries that have developed adequate private property restitution laws. One of the priorities of the Prague conference is just that.

JTA: Lithuania has stalled restitution of Jewish communal property since the community asked for its return eight years ago. Lithuania has offered to pay $46 million, one-third of the properties’ value. What is taking so long to get this property back?

Eizenstat: Some of the momentum behind restitution of Jewish assets has been lost over the last eight or 10 years. What we are trying to do at these conferences — and with a good measure of success — is to bring moral suasion on these countries. There is no international mechanism to force action, nor would that be effective if one tried to do it. There is one innovation, perhaps the most important: a follow-up mechanism. The Czech government, to its enormous credit, has suggested creating a European Shoah Institute in Terezin to follow up the declarations, serve as a central database for all Holocaust issues and develop best practices in dealing with private property, art restitution and archival openness. The full support of the European Union is now behind the Terezin Institute.

JTA: There is about $30.5 billion of confiscated private property in Poland, about a quarter of which is thought to have been Jewish-owned.

Eizenstat: For 10 years the U.S. government has been urging the government of Poland to develop a private property restitution program based on compensation, and for 10 years they have pledged to do so. It is unacceptable that it has taken so long and we hope the Prague conference will be a spur for what they have committed to do. We know this is a difficult financial time, and we have suggested that it does not have to be 100 percent of market value and that it could be paid over time.

JTA: Does being part of the European Union bring more attention to a country’s wrongdoing?

Eizenstat: The European Union and the European Commission have not followed through on resolutions by the European Parliament supporting restitution. It has not been high on their agenda, and it should be.

JTA: Israel argues that heirless property from the Holocaust should be returned to the Jewish people, with the money used to help survivors. But some U.S. Jewish organizational leaders think that might be too much to demand from countries in the former Eastern bloc [except for the former East Germany, which has given the Claims Conference money from the sale of heirless properties]. Are the Israelis wrong?

Eizenstat: Let’s talk about Israel. When I started my effort in the 1990s in the Clinton administration and I went to Israeli ambassadors in Belarus and Ukraine and other places where I was trying to get communal property restitution — synagogues, schools, community centers — there was no interest. They were just reviving relations with Central European governments that had been frozen since the ’67 war, and that was a priority. I am proud to say, then, that then-Prime Minister Netanyahu and Prime Minister Barak, at my urging, did begin to put more attention on it. But it took a lot of urging. Even today the Israeli government has not, and the Israeli museums have not, done thorough art restitution research. They have not done thorough return of bank accounts and of other property belonging to Holocaust victims. So the Israeli government needs to show more leadership.

JTA: You have said this restitution conference is the first to address the social needs of Holocaust survivors. How is it possible that they keep getting left out?

Eizenstat: What has now come to people’s attention is that in our own U.S., upwards of 30 to 35 percent of survivors live in poverty. Why has this taken so long [to focus on]? In part because people do not like to bring attention to their own deprivations, but in part because there are a lot of other issues going on in the restitution world. Social needs were not going to be on the agenda of this conference, but they are now front and center.

JTA: There are survivors who feel too much money goes to speakers, plane tickets and fancy conference buffets and not on their health-care bills.

Eizenstat: I take personal responsibility for the fact that at four previous conferences, the social needs were not brought to the attention of the international community. We are here to reignite momentum before it is too late, not to eat fancy food. There has been tremendous amount of money put out there [for survivors], $60 billion from Germany, but it is not enough.

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