An update from Steve Schwager, CEO:
The Holocaust Era Assets Conference (HEAC) held in Prague at the end of June was an unprecedented event. More than 600 delegates representing 46 countries (mainly from Europe) as well as many non-governmental organizations (NGOs) came together to review what has—and has not—been done to return Jewish property that was looted, stolen, confiscated, violated, and destroyed during the Holocaust. The Conference was the closing event, and perhaps the highlight, of the Czech Presidency of the European Union.
JDC was one of 22 NGOs participating in the Conference itself, as well as in preparatory meetings earlier in the year. JDC Board members Fran Eizenstat, Judge Ellen M. Heller, and Nigel Ross (Co-Chair of the Conference’s Immovable Property Working Group) attended the Prague gathering, as did JDC professionals Yechiel Bar-Chaim, Herbert Block, Alberto Senderey, and Gideon Taylor (representing the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany [Claims Conference]), as well as Diego Ornique, Stefan Oscar, and Eitan Horvath from our JDC Europe team.
JDC’s participation in the Prague Conference was critical. Our mission of assisting Jewish communities and JDC’s clients in the FSU and in Central and Eastern Europe is a top priority, and so we have been involved in issues of compensation for Holocaust survivors and the restitution of Jewish communal property for a very long time. JDC has worked actively on these issues through our membership in the Claims Conference and the World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO), of which I am privileged to serve currently as Co-Chair. And certainly JDC’s Board of Directors follows these issues closely through our Property Reclamation Committee.
The Conference featured declarations and impassioned calls for justice surrounding such issues as: (1) Restituting Immovable Property that was taken from individual Jews or Jewish communities; (2) Return of Looted Art and Judaica; (3) Holocaust Education; and (4) Social Welfare Needs of Nazi Victims.
Certain particularly recalcitrant countries, like Lithuania and Latvia, were publicly rebuked in many speeches for failing to restore Jewish communal property, while other countries like Poland were called to task for not returning private Jewish property and respecting inheritance rights.
For the first time, the question of compensation for heirless Jewish property played a prominent role. Participating states were summoned to advance funds out of the value of such property in order to pay for the medical and social care of survivors.
A “Terezin Declaration” was signed by the 46 participating governments at the conclusion of the Conference. It established the “European Shoah Legacy Institute,” to be based in Terezin, which will follow up on all the issues raised and will try to ensure further progress on behalf of all the participating countries. The official conference proceedings and documents can be seen at http://www.holocausteraassets.eu/
Yechiel Bar-Chaim, JDC’s Country Director in the Czech Republic, offers his personal observations on the Conference below:
Amidst the blur and the din of 46 different national positions on each of the issues and the diverse actions of the numerous Jewish organizations represented, two men stood out at the Conference for their skill and their decency.
First and foremost was Ambassador Stuart Eizenstat, the Head of the U.S. Delegation. He is the key individual who accomplished so much as the Special Envoy on these issues for the Clinton Administration (see his book on this experience: Imperfect Justice). More than once we heard and witnessed at the Conference how, without Mr. Eizenstat’s prestige, experience, sense of focus, and clarity—and in the absence of his “iron stomach” diplomatic patience—nothing at all would have been agreed upon or moved forward.
Also worthy of recognition is my friend, the former Czech Ambassador to Israel and Director of the Education Center of the Prague Jewish Museum, Dr. Milos Pojar, the chief organizer of the Conference. He rightly claimed that the Czech government’s diligent actions and far-ranging support for these efforts constituted part of the ongoing legacy of the founder of the Czech (and Slovak) republics, Tomas G. Masaryk, a revered figure in Jewish history in his own right.
The Conference was enveloped by a range of Jewish cultural and religious activity—often connected with JDC’s long efforts to promote Jewish renewal in this part of the world—that did honor to us all. Thus a Cantorial Concert marked the opening night and a festive Shabbat dinner at the Prague Jewish Community Hall brought Elie Wiesel and many other participants together. JDC’s Chairman of the Board, Judge Ellen M. Heller, spoke at the Conference about JDC’s extensive activities on behalf of Holocaust survivors, and JDC Board member Nigel Ross, as JDC’s Property Reclamation Committee Chair, took the time to meet with the Czech Union of Jewish Students, who found themselves discussing JDC and our worldwide role in a lively Shabbat discussion that lasted past midnight on Friday. The renowned historian of JDC, distinguished Hebrew University of Jerusalem Professor Yehuda Bauer, delivered an important lecture on the goals and means of Holocaust Education, while Ed Serotta’s narrative photo exhibit of the individual histories of Czech survivors and their families lined the walls of the concluding concert held at Terezin.
The concert, entitled “Defiant Requiem,” highlighted the history of Rafael Schacter, an inmate at Terezin who taught 150 fellow prisoners to sing Verdi’s masterpiece. As the transports East took his singers away, he chose other inmates to replace them. Murray Sidlin, Dean of the School of Music at Catholic University, sang the Requiem “in context,” along with the University Choir, incorporating into their performance tremendously moving and evocative video testimonies from survivors who had once sung with the indomitable Mr. Schacter.
I am certain that, like Irv and I, you see the current efforts regarding looted Jewish assets truly as an “imperfect justice.” Nothing can take away the horrors of the Holocaust and the unimaginable injustices that occurred while the world stood by, but certainly imperfect action is better than no action at all. And clearly this Conference was a critical step forward in the process.