WASHINGTON, Dec. 1 (JTA) — Jewish officials have called for action — and not merely deliberation — as representatives of some 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 assets not covered by last year’s London conference on Nazi gold — namely, looted art works and unpaid life and property insurance claims. 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 before the hundreds of delegates gathered at the State Department the memory of her Jewish grandparents who died in the Holocaust. “I think of the blood that is in my family veins,” Albright said. “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 remarks were believed to be her most extensive public comments about her Jewish lineage following her discovery last year that her Czech grandparents and other relatives died in the Holocaust. At the outset, it remained unclear whether the 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. Toward that end, U.S. Undersecretary of State Stuart Eizenstat, who organized the conference, said he would try to forge an international consensus on looted art, urging countries to agree to a set of principles calling for new efforts to match art with claims and new methods to resolve disputes over claims. 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. “We are going to ask that the last prisoners of war be released to the rightful claimants or heirs,” said Elan Steinberg, the WJC’s executive director. 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. Indeed, some Jewish leaders have cautioned that focusing exclusively on financial matters risks damaging the memory of the Holocaust. Bearing that in mind, a task force of officials from the United States, Sweden, Britain, Germany and Israel planned to call 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, the United States is moving to take a closer look at its own dealings during and after World War II, focusing on the way it handled Holocaust victims’ assets. President Clinton on Monday named Bronfman as chairman of a newly created 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 by the end of next year. Other appointees to the commission include Eizenstat, former U.S. Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.), and Brandeis University President Jehuda Reinharz.
U.S. hosts global conference on fate of Holocaust-era assets