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State Department report highlights unfulfilled commitment to Holocaust survivors

State Department report highlights unfulfilled commitment to Holocaust survivors
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In his keynote speech to the Prague Holocaust Era Assets Conference on June 26, 2009, Holocaust survivor and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel described the confiscation of his family’s every possession. He said, “Just measure the added ugliness of their hideous crimes: They stole not only the wealth of the wealthy but also the poverty of the poor. The first transport left our ghetto one month later.”

“Only later did I realize that what we so poorly call the Holocaust deals not only with political dictatorship, racist ideology and military conquest, but also with financial gain, state-organized robbery, or just money.”

At the conclusion of the conference, 47 countries adopted the 2009 Terezin Declaration on Holocaust Era Assets and Related Issues, affirming their commitment to adopt national laws and policies to help Holocaust survivors and Jewish communities identify and reclaim their properties.

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On July 29, 2020 — 11 years after the adoption of the Terezin Declaration — the U.S. State Department issued the JUST Act report, the U.S. government’s first-ever comprehensive review of the state of restitution of Holocaust era assets. The report finds that many European countries have still not met their commitments to Holocaust survivors and Jewish communities to provide restitution or compensation for property that was wrongfully taken from them during the Holocaust.

Seventy-five years after the Holocaust, there is little time left for countries to act while remaining survivors are alive to benefit from an acknowledgement and from a measure of justice. The World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO) welcomes this historic report. 

“They suffered enough. And enough people benefitted from their sufferings. Why not do everything possible and draw from all available funds to help them live their last years with a sense of security, in dignity and serenity?” said Wiesel as he concluded his speech at the conference with a plea to prioritize the Holocaust.

The U.S. Government has long led the effort for justice for Holocaust survivors. The JUST Act report — which begins with an executive summary featuring the same powerful words from Eli Wiesel’s keynote speech at the Prague conference — is a result of a law, the Justice for Uncompensated Survivors Today (JUST) Act, which passed unanimously by both houses of Congress and was signed by President Trump in May 2018. Sadly, the report finds that despite important steps taken by individual countries, only a part of property wrongfully seized from Holocaust survivors has been recovered or compensated.

For instance, Poland remains the only country in the European Union that has not passed comprehensive legislation for restitution or compensation for property taken during the Holocaust by the Nazis and/or subsequently nationalized by the communists, despite endorsing the Terezin Declaration 11 years ago.  

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Jehuda Evron, a Holocaust survivor and President of the Holocaust Restitution Committee said in his speech at the 2009 Prague conference that he simply did not “understand why Poland continues to cause so much additional suffering by denying our right to our homes… We expected that a nation like Poland, that suffered so much during the Nazi and the communist eras, would understand the suffering of other people.” Indeed, 11 years later, Jehuda and his wife continue to wait for the return of her family’s property in Poland.

Even in countries that have adopted legislation, claimants continue to face a variety of obstacles and delays. In some countries, such as Croatia, Hungary, and Lithuania, survivors and their families who fled during or after the Holocaust were excluded from restitution laws. The Terezin Declaration decries such discrimination based on citizenship and calls for claims processes that are accessible, expeditious, and neither burdensome nor costly.

Restitution of property is about more than property. It is about justice and fairness. It is about remembering and acknowledging the past. 

Regrettably, the JUST Act report notes, that progress is not happening quickly enough.

Time is of the essence while the last remaining survivors are still among us so that these remarkable men and women can receive a small measure of justice for their material losses while living out their sunset years with the dignity they deserve. The support of the United States will continue to be critical in urging countries in Europe to meet their commitments. We must help survivors secure what is rightfully theirs. Especially now, amid the coronavirus pandemic, all must be done to care for vulnerable Holocaust survivors, many of whom live on limited income and are in poor health. 

Roman Kent is Chairman of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants; Gideon Taylor is Chair of Operations, World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO).