Last chance for Holocaust restitution

Last chance for Holocaust restitution

'Needs are immediate and we are all too aware of them'


PRAGUE ““ Just when charitable agencies are struggling to provide services, 46 nations have called for greater aid to needy Holocaust survivors. No one suggests that communal agencies take on this obligation, but in the United States, immediate support is unlikely to come from any other source.

With a declaration endorsed on Tuesday at the Terezin concentration camp, the nations – primarily European – concluded a four-day conference on Holocaust-era assets. The conference, hosted by the Czech Republic, was the first international diplomatic forum on Nazi victims’ material losses in slightly over a decade. It also was the first to include the social welfare of survivors on the agenda.

Commentary“It is unacceptable that those who suffered so greatly during the earlier part of their lives should live under impoverished circumstances at the end,” said the Terezin Declaration.

The declaration is nonbinding, but was heralded for its moral authority and “peer review” by other nations to propel compliance.

The idea was that the proceeds of Nazi-era heirless Jewish properties in each nation could be used to finance social welfare programs, such as home care. It’s a nice theoretical proposal that could work in some countries in Europe, where there were once sizable pre-World War II Jewish communities. It could work in Israel, as well, where an independent agency has been identifying investments and assets in Mandatory Palestine that were purchased by European Jews, but were never claimed.

But European nations have uneven sentiments on property restitution, from those that have some form of restitution procedure, to those that have yet – all these decades after the Nazi era – to enact restitution laws that cover Jewish losses. Israeli institutions face similar problems.

That is a moot point in the United States. It did have pre-war European Jewish assets in American banks, but those heirless accounts were settled as part of the U.S. war claims process. And they were reconsidered in the mid-1990s, ending the question of the Nazi-era heirless funds in American institutions or governmental treasuries.

But there is a substantial need in the United States, as was pointed out by Stuart Eizenstat, the former Clinton administration “restitution czar” who led the American delegation in Prague. (See related stories.) Eizenstat told the conference that in the United States, about one-third of Nazi victims are living at or close to the poverty level.

This isn’t a secret in communities where survivors live, whether in the United States or elsewhere. Some in the United States will say that Germany should pay more. It’s a fair statement, but the Germans have paid substantial amounts in the last 60 years; continue to make significant direct and indirect payments; and victims’ needs are greater and communal resources lesser in Central and Eastern Europe than in the United States.

Some would say this is Washington’s responsibility, and the Jewish community should press for additional public funds. Yet, while it is all well and good to lobby governments, this is not an appropriate response when the needs are immediate and we are all too aware of them.

The American delegation in Prague, after long consultations with Jewish organizations, pressed for nations at this week’s Holocaust-era assets conference to make moral pledges to recognize the right of Holocaust survivors to a dignified twilight and to care for Nazi victims. Whether those pledges are honored remains to be seen; in the decade since the last conference, the record of honored pledges has been a poor one. But we as a community cannot in the interim shirk our responsibility to act humanely, compassionately, and quickly to assist the survivors we know and the institutions that are dedicated to their welfare.

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