‘Time is of the essence' for Holocaust survivors

‘Time is of the essence' for Holocaust survivors
© Getty Images

Sending a powerful message to countries across Europe on the eve of the Jewish festival of Hanukkah, a unanimous U.S. Senate voted to help Holocaust survivors and their families around the globe secure a measure of justice. 

On Dec. 12, the Senate passed the Justice for Uncompensated Survivors Today Act. The JUST Act would require the U.S. State Department to report on the implementation by countries of an international declaration to help people identify and reclaim properties wrongfully seized during and in the aftermath of World War II. 

The measure was introduced in the Senate by Sens. Tammy BaldwinTammy Suzanne BaldwinDem senator accuses Wisconsin Republicans of 'power grab' Schumer reelected as Senate Democratic Leader Number of LGBT lawmakers in Congress hits double digits MORE (D-Wis.) and Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioFormer Florida elections official Snipes sues to be returned to job Look out ‘losers’ — Trump focused on ‘winning’ The Memo: GOP frets as Trump shutdown looms MORE (R-Fla.), and in the House by Reps. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.) and Chris SmithChristopher (Chris) Henry SmithUS has made a genuine response to the plight of Iraq’s persecuted religious minorities Charities fear hit from Trump tax law during holidays Election Countdown: Florida Senate race heads to hand recount | Dem flips Maine House seat | New 2020 trend - the 'friend-raiser' | Ad war intensifies in Mississippi runoff | Blue wave batters California GOP MORE (R-N.J.), all of them reaching across the aisle to right a historical wrong. 

ADVERTISEMENT

Passage of the legislation will cap intensive efforts by several governments worldwide, as well as the World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO), to take immediate action while survivors are still with us.

 

Even seven decades after the Holocaust, survivors and their heirs continue to pursue the return of property stolen by the Nazis, and later by communist governments. And Jewish communities in countries devastated by the Holocaust still wait for the return of synagogues, schools and other communal property.

Of course, the restitution of property cannot provide full justice for Holocaust survivors — nothing can.

Yet restitution serves as a powerful recognition of the deprivation of property rights and a testament to countries’ efforts to acknowledge history. At a time when too many Holocaust survivors live with inadequate social care, restitution can provide the means for survivors to live with the dignity that they deserve.

In passing the JUST Act, Congress would ensure transparency and accountability among the 47 countries that endorsed the 2009 Terezin Declaration on Holocaust Era Assets and Related Issues. 

Through the declaration, countries agreed to make every effort “to rectify the consequences of wrongful property seizures ... which were part of the persecution of these innocent people and groups, the vast majority of whom died heirless.”

But several nations that endorsed Terezin, including some NATO allies, still have not fully addressed the restitution of Jewish communal, private and heirless property.

In Latvia, for example, hundreds of communal properties, including synagogues and schools that belonged to a once-thriving Jewish community, remain unreturned. In Croatia and Slovenia, non-citizens are excluded from legislation that provided restitution for confiscated property. Bosnia has yet to address the issue.

Elsewhere in Europe, talks in Hungary continue concerning heirless Jewish property that was to be returned under a postwar treaty.

And Poland, once home to a community of some 3.3 million Jews that was mostly annihilated during the Holocaust, is the sole European Union member without a national program to return or provide compensation for private property stolen during the war and its aftermath.

International support for the effort to secure justice for Holocaust survivors and their families also has gained momentum outside the United States. 

President Reuven Rivlin of Israel earlier this year hosted a meeting at his residence focusing on the recovery of Jewish property stolen during the Holocaust.

“Less than 400,000 survivors are alive today,” Rivlin said at the event. “About half are here in Israel, the other half live around the world. … We all have a duty to the survivors today, now, to ensure their well-being.” 

In April, European Parliament members backed a pledge to boost support for Holocaust survivors and their families seeking the return of property looted during the war. The declaration affirms “the moral responsibility of European Union member-states to advance Holocaust-era property restitution.”

“Time is of the essence,” said Holocaust survivor Nate Taffel of Milwaukee, Wis., whose family once lived in the village of Radomysl Wielki, Poland.

He is right. International efforts to assure property restitution must accelerate, to benefit living survivors.

The Senate’s commitment to survivors and their heirs demonstrates that there is widespread bipartisan support in the pursuit of justice for those who have already lost so much.

Gideon Taylor is the chair of operations for the World Jewish Restitution Organization, which works toward the restitution of private property and Jewish communal property seized during the Holocaust in Eastern Europe.