Holocaust restitution hits gridlock at forum
Returning real estate seized by Nazis an uphill battle for claimants
Posted: December 5, 2012
Rabbi Slomó Köves stood in front of Černín Palace with claimant György Sessler to show reporters images of some of the priceless religious objects looted by Adolf Eichmann.
By Will Tizard
For the Post
Slow and steady - playing the long game.
That's the message Stuart Eizenstat says is critical to understanding the progress of the Prague-based, U.S.-funded European Shoah Legacy Institute (ESLI), a Holocaust restitution nonprofit facing growing scrutiny and skepticism that its leaders call unfair.
"It's too easy to be pessimistic," said Eizenstat, formerly President Bill Clinton's top adviser on Holocaust reparations and a key figure in the founding of the organization in 2010. He was addressing a gathering held at Prague's Černín Palace Nov. 26-28 to follow up on the 2009 Terezín Declaration, in which 46 countries agreed to speed up the tortuous restitution process for victims of Nazi theft.
Eighteen years ago, as Eizenstat told the assembled experts, dignitaries and scholars, there were no international agreements on restitution of Nazi-looted property and "barely any Holocaust education programs in the United States or Europe." Since then, some $8 billion in restitution for wartime slave labor has been won from those who benefited from it in Germany, Austria and Switzerland and France.
Some 20 countries have created commissions "to examine their role during World War II"; Serbia, until recently showing no interest in the cause, has now come to the table; and $205 million has been collected to provide for impoverished Holocaust survivors, Eizenstat pointed out.
But as the coffee urns at the stately palace go back into storage, a growing chorus of criticism over limited progress on restitution claims has left a distinct impression of mixed messages in the international media.
Coverage of the conference, which focused on restitution of real estate, has focused on the voices of detractors. These include Hungary's Rabbi Slomó Köves, who stood in front of the palace along with claimant György Sessler, who was born in the Budapest ghetto during the war, to show reporters images of some of the thousands of priceless religious objects and Torah scrolls looted by Adolf Eichmann, the man Hitler put in charge of Jewish deportations. The treasure was later taken back to Russia by the Red Army, where it's remained ever since, now gathering dust in a warehouse in Nizhny Novgorod.
Tensions turn to lawsuits
The Hungarians asked that their demand for a return of the Judaica be put on the ESLI program, but they were refused.
The former head of the Prague Jewish Community, Tomáš Jelínek, who has also been critical of ESLI, was only admitted to the conference after applying for accreditation as a journalist, he confessed.
"Journalists need a fight for some news," he said. "The only fight is coming from Ed Fagan."
Indeed, the Hungarian delegation, along with Cypriots, who made an unscheduled demand for the closure of an army base built over a Jewish cemetery, were working closely with Fagan, a controversial American Holocaust rights crusader who announced as the conference was closing that he is personally suing the U.S. and Czech governments to demand they de-fund ESLI for failing to meet its obligations.
"ESLI and its officials have deceived and misled the United States," the suit contends, along with "Holocaust victims, heirs and their successors, nongovernmental organizations interested in restitution issues [and] other signatories to the 2009 Terezín Declaration."
In the case of the Czech Republic, the organization has failed to amend the 2000 Holocaust restitution law, Fagan contends, to recognize claimants who are not direct descendants of Nazi victims. As a result, he argues, the National Gallery has been allowed to do nothing about returning dozens of pieces of valuable art once owned by Jewish families - a problem that has parallels at galleries and museums all over Europe.
Bobby Brown, who runs the Israel-based Project Heart, put the number of people who are awaiting recompense at more than 150,000. He acknowledges ESLI is hardly alone in focusing on what he calls the "low-hanging fruit" of real estate seized from Holocaust victims. As for whether ESLI's looking after victims of other kinds of property theft, he said, "No one is."
That said, Brown points out that Israel has declined funding requests from ESLI because proposals for outreach and educational programs were thought too vague or too similar to existing programs. More could certainly be done to represent more categories of claimants.
Indeed, he found it troubling to be conferring around buffet tables in the soaring Černín Palace while so many heirs, and claimants for heirless property, are still out in the cold.
"If it were up to me, this would be held in a much bigger place," Brown said, "with a much lower ceiling."
The difficulty of getting back property seized 70 years ago - and the Nazis stole billions, from the 1930s onward from all over Europe, apparently as a key element of funding the Reich's expansion - can hardly be overstated.
Indeed, as Jelínek points out, without the political will to cooperate among property holders such as the National Gallery and others, no organization with ESLI's mandate of pushing for improved practices can do much good.
Will Tizard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org