US envoy on Holocaust issues urges Eastern European nations to return stolen Jewish property
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US envoy on Holocaust issues urges Eastern European nations to return stolen Jewish property

(JTA) — The U.S. special envoy for Holocaust issues urged Eastern European nations to honor their largely unimplemented promise from 2009 to offer restitution for property stolen from Jews.

Thomas Yazdgerdi made the appeal at a high-level conference Wednesday in Brussels on restitution, where special attention was devoted to the 2009 Terezin Declaration. In that statement, many European countries for the first time vowed to resolve Holocaust-related property claims. Many of them, however, have not followed through.

Yazdgerdi appealed to the countries “to provide justice for survivors and their families for the expropriation of their property.”

“We will continue to encourage countries to restitute illegally confiscated communal and private property to rightful owners,” he said. “We fully support our European partners in their work towards achieving the principles set out in the Terezin Declaration.”

Among the cosignatories of the landmark declaration was Poland, which has resisted calls to follow the example of other European countries and pass legislation offering restitution for billions of dollars worth of privately owned property that once belonged to Jews murdered in the Holocaust.

Romania, another co-signatory that has passed laws in recent decades ensuring ensuring restitution of privately owned and communal property, has systematically delayed their implementation, according to the World Jewish Restitution Organization, which co-organized the conference at the European Parliament together with officials from the parliament.

“Too many survivors are living in poverty, without adequate welfare support, while some states and individuals continue to benefit from properties wrongfully seized from Jewish people during the Holocaust,” Gideon Taylor, the organization’s chair of operations, said at the conference.

Speakers included the European Parliament lawmaker Gunnar Hökmark of Sweden and three of his colleagues who head the European Alliance for Holocaust Survivors. Natan Sharansky, who heads the Jewish Agency for Israel and is a former Israeli deputy prime minister, also attended the event along with the Bosnian foreign minister, Igor Crnadak.

Among the Holocaust survivors who spoke were Ben Helfgott, a former British champion weightlifter who was born in Poland.

“Economic discrimination and the seizure of Jewish property were integral parts of the Holocaust; humiliating us, stripping us of our worth, rendering us worthless,” said Helfgott, an Olympian who won three gold medals at the Maccabiah Games. “A quantifiable total of 12 billion British pounds ($15.5 million) was taken from German Jews alone, not including the less tangible thefts of Jewish communal property.”

Whereas “in Western and Central Europe, the process to return stolen Jewish property or offer compensation began in the 1950s and has been growing ever since,” he said, “in most Eastern European countries, the majority of stolen Jewish property has not been returned.”