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Nazi crimes

June 30, 2009

Forty-six countries have vowed to increase efforts to return art and property stolen from Jews during the Holocaust. Delegates are to sign a non-binding declaration in the Czech Republic on Tuesday.

Charlene von Saher points to the painting once owned by her grandfather titled, "The Temptation of St. Anthony"
It took six decades to return this painting to its rightful ownersImage: AP

"A major accomplishment" was how Stuart Eizenstat, head of the American delegation to the Prague Holocaust Assets Conference, described the outcome of the five-day event.

It was the last event of the six-month Czech EU presidency, and one clearly designed to make a major impact. Delegates from 46 mainly European countries gathered for the biggest Holocaust assets conference since Washington in 1998.

They emerged with the Terezin Declaration - a public pledge to do more to redress one of the greatest crimes of the 20th century – the Nazi theft of around 650,000 works of art and also substantial amounts of property from Europe's Jews.

"[Such declarations] do not create legal obligations, they are not treaties, but they create important moral obligations," said Eizenstat. "We are living in the 21st century, in which moral obligations and national reputations can be made or broken by the willingness of countries which sign on to these obligations to assume them."

As many as 70,000 artworks remain scattered in museums and private collections or simply lost around the world. There is a feeling that the process has stalled in some countries, thanks to a combination of lack of political will and often sheer ignorance of the provenance of artwork.

European countries lagging behind

In a report compiled for the Prague conference, the Jewish Claims Conference said only one-third of the 44 countries who agreed to the Washington principles had made substantial progress, citing Hungary, Poland, Spain and Italy as those that had made no progress at all.

Lenka Reinerova
German-Jewish writer Lenka Reinerova, who died last year, was honored at the conferenceImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

"There is some atmosphere, not only in the Czech Republic but I would say all around the world, literally, it's more or less a feeling that the authorities, respective authorities, think that the Holocaust era assets is a closed chapter," said Tomas Kraus, Secretary of the Federation of Czech Jewish Communities. "[Some countries believe that] everything that could have been done was done. And this is not so, there are still some remaining parts".

Looted art is just part of a wider set of aims set down in Prague. Property restitution is also a major issue – there Poland has actually been singled out for praise, an indicator that countries are making progress in some areas and lagging behind in others.

The first point on the Terezin declaration, however, concerns the well-being of the remaining Holocaust survivors.

"What we have found is that by our own studies over a third of our Holocaust survivors in the richest nation on earth are living at or below the poverty level and that's unacceptable," Eizenstat said.

"By making this a first order of business, hopefully it elevates this to the consciousness of policymakers and governments and the public."

Holocaust education essential

To monitor progress in all these legacies of the Holocaust – the return of looted artwork, the restitution of property stolen by the Nazis, access to archives long hidden under dust – the 46 delegates agreed to set up a new institution in Terezin – called the European Shoah Legacy Institute.

Collage of Holocaust symbols
The Prague conference also focused on how to teach the Holocaust in schoolImage: APTN/SO

Terezin was where the Nazis once herded Jews from all over Europe en route to Auschwitz and the other death camps of the east. Holocaust education, too, will be a key component of the new institute. Historians believe education is vital in the ongoing battle against intolerance.

"There's a tremendous outburst of anti-semitism which is different from xenophobia and other things; it's much more ancient," said renowned Holocaust scholar Yehuda Bauer. "[Anti-semitism] has tremendous roots. It is not a prejudice, it's a cultural phenomenon which has been around for thousands of years, which is based on the fact that the Jewish civilization is not better or worse but it’s different."

There is already, however, some skepticism as to whether the Terezin Declaration will achieve anything. Critics say the declaration itself is far too vague, and it remains, of course, non-binding.

An editorial in the Jerusalem Post was describing the leaked draft as "toothless" before the ink on the document was even dry. Some critics believe such meetings are good on words; creating action to match those words is far more difficult.

Author: Rob Cameron

Editor: Trinity Hartman

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