Report from Jerusalem: The continuing struggle for Holocaust justice

Seventy-one years after the end of World War II, the struggle for Holocaust justice continues. Germany still prosecutes aging Nazi perpetrators, though they are now in their 90s. In just a few years, however, this part of Holocaust justice will end. The last of the perpetrators living today will be gone – and children do not inherit the guilt of their parents.

But there is another aspect of Holocaust justice that can and must continue. The genocide of the Jews of Europe involved not only mass murder but also mass theft. And though the beneficiaries of such theft may soon be gone, the continuing injustice of their children and grandchildren holding on to former Jewish property can still be remedied.

Late this spring in the United States, Senator Ted Cruz (R-Florida), Senator Chuck Shumer (D-New York) and other senators introduced bi-partisan legislation to address the recovery of stolen art. Actress Dame Helen Mirren – who portrayed Maria Altmann, the claimant of five Nazi-looted Klimt paintings in the 2015 film Woman in Gold – testified at a Senate committee hearing this month in support of the law. If passed, the Holocaust Expropriated Art Recovery (HEAR) Act would set a six-year statute of limitations on claims for Nazi-era stolen art, which would begin upon actual discovery of the art. This is a major step for art restitution efforts and the most significant the US has seen so far. It is this kind of progressive policy that leads to true justice for victims, but sadly we do not see these initiatives across the.

The latest efforts to reaffirm commitments to Holocaust justice worldwide saw ambassadors and special envoys, non-profit organizations, interested observers and other stakeholders convene at an International Forum on Holocaust Restitution in Jerusalem in June. Organized by the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Social Equality, the Forum focused on the commitments made exactly seven years ago through the Terezin Declaration, a directive issued by 46 states at the conclusion of the Holocaust Era Assets Conference in Prague and Terezin in June 2009. Issued on the site of the Terezin concentration camp, the international community agreed in the Terezin Declaration to continue efforts to right the financial wrongs committed against the European Jews and other minority groups during World War II.

The 1990s brought a slew of conferences on how to deal with unresolved issues from the Nazi era, beginning with the 1996 London conference on disposition of the remaining reserves of recovered Nazi gold held since 1946 by the Tripartite Gold Commission. Nazi Germany looted approximately $580 million of gold from the central banks of 15 countries (equivalent to approximately $7.62 billion in today's funds). In London, 41 nations agreed to use the gold not yet restituted to help needy Holocaust survivors.

What made Prague Conference unique was that the convening nations also created a body, the Prague-based European Shoah Legacy Institute (ESLI), to monitor how faithfully were nations honoring the solemn commitments made at Terezin in 2009. The Jerusalem Forum offered a preview of the Immovable Property Restitution Study, to be issued by ESLI later in the year and presented to the EU in Brussels. The Study will be the first-ever comprehensive repository of all legislation passed by 46 states over the last seven decades to deal with the return of land and businesses stolen from the Jews of Europe and other persecuted minorities during the war.

An unfortunate fact that the Study has already revealed is that immovable property restitution and a quest for restorative justice as a tool for promoting cultural tolerance and combatting racism and intolerance in Europe still has a long way to go. It also revealed that ordinary laws dealing with restitution of garden-variety stolen property in ordinary times simply cannot adequately deal with the extraordinary thievery of Jewish property that took place upon the Nazis coming to power in 1933 and continued to the last days of World War II in 1945. Ordinary property laws are written for ordinary experiences, not for the extraordinary times when the largest theft in history took place during the Holocaust.

The inadequacy of ordinary legislation is best illustrated by the case of Poland, home to the largest pre-war Jewish community in Europe. Jews in pre-war Poland constituted a significant segment of the commercial class in the country. Jews were owners of factories, shops and land – both large and small. With the murder of 90% of the 3.3 million Polish Jews, formerly Jewish-owned property came into the hands of both private citizens and the state – and has remained so ever since. The end of Communism in 1989 led to privatization of the Polish economy, with the consequence that former Jewish property nationalized by the state now returned to private hands. But not to the hands of the pre-war Jewish owners or their heirs. Everywhere in Poland, land and businesses owned by the Jews before the war is now owned by others.

Poland is the only country in the European Union that has yet to enact laws dealing with restitution of private property, both taken by the Nazis and later the Communists. Some restitution has taken place, both of the actual properties and through monetary compensation. Successful claimants have relied on a patchwork of Polish laws enacted since 1945 and long-standing provisions of the Polish Civil Code and of the Polish Administrative Procedure Code. Even then, successful claimants have been only those who have demonstrated that their property was nationalized contrary to the letter of the Communist legislation, meaning there is currently no recourse for property “legally” nationalized under then-existing laws.

One-half of pre-war Jewish communal property, where once synagogues and Jewish cemeteries stood, has yet to be restituted. And since such a significant portion of Polish Jewry perished, there remains the issue of heirless property: private Jewish property for which there are no heirs. Under legislation enacted by Poland right after the war, such “abandoned” properties simply became property of the Polish state.

Restitution is not just about the repairing the injustices of the past. Restorative justice that addresses the wrongs of yesterday creates tolerance and affirms civil society. This is what progressive policies like the bi-partisan HEAR Act meaningfully sets out to do, and is an example that others should follow. Restitution supports reconciliation. Holocaust justice by means of restitution of what was stolen from the Jews of Europe can still be accomplished today. Jewish property can be returned to Jewish families and to the Jewish communities from whom such property was taken.

Attorney Kathryn Lee Boyd is Project Co-Director, ESLI Immovable Property Restitution Study. Attorney Kristen Nelson is Project Manager of the Study. Both just returned from Jerusalem where they participated in the International Forum on Holocaust Restitution.

Germany agrees to $300 million more in restitution, Claims Conf. says

Germany has agreed to provide restitution payments to an additional 80,000 Jews in what Claims Conference officials are describing as a historic breakthrough.

The agreement, which was reached Monday in negotiations between German officials and Claims Conference representatives, is likely to result in additional payments of approximately $300 million. Most of the money will go to Nazi victims in the former Soviet Union who have never before qualified for pensions or payments from German restitution money.

“This is the last group of people who have never received any compensation,” Greg Schneider, the executive vice president of the Claims Conference, told JTA in a telephone interview from Washington, where the negotiations took place.

“For people who suffered during the time of the Shoah, recognition from Germany is vital. To be able to do that at this stage, 60 years after the first restitution agreement, for 80,000 people, is tremendous,” he said. “For a survivor now in their old age to finally get acknowledgment from Germany is critically important.”

Most of the money will come from the Hardship Fund, which grants one-time payouts of 2,556 euro—approximately $3,150—to Jews who fled the Nazis as they swept eastward through Europe. Until now, those payments were not available to Jews in Ukraine, Russia and other non-European Union countries in Eastern Europe. Applications for the fund will be available until Nov. 1.

In many of those countries, the lump sum could amount to four years of regular pension payments, according to Schneider.

In Monday’s negotiations, Germany also agreed to equalize the monthly pensions it sends to survivors around the world, correcting what until now had been a disparity that saw survivors living in western countries receiving more than those in eastern countries. All survivors will now receive the equivalent of approximately $370 per month.

Germany also agreed to relax the eligibility rules for those who receive restitution payments for being forced into hiding during the Nazi era. Until now, only those who went into hiding for at least 12 months were eligible; now the eligibility threshold will be six months.

Restitution organizations

The propensity for Jewish organizations to have complicated names and frequently overlapping missions can be seen in the complex area of obtaining restitution for Holocaust-era crimes and looting of personal and communal possessions.

The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum lists 15 coalitions, commissions, conferences and other organizations currently active in this field. The following brief glossary offers information on three key ones:

Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany (Claims Conference): Founded in 1951, the Claims Conference has concluded restitution agreements to provide more than $60 billion. The lion’s share of this money has come from the German government, supplemented by smaller amounts from Swiss banks, European insurance companies and the Austrian government.

World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO): Established by the World Jewish Congress in 1992, WJRO now includes 13 constituent organizations. Its mission is the return or compensate for Jewish communal or private property in 20 European countries of the former Soviet bloc, excluding Germany and Austria.

Project HEART (Holocaust Era Asset Restitution Taskforce): Formed in February 2011 and launched in May, HEART is backed by a grant from the Israeli government for more than $7 million over a three-year period. Its announced focus is to recover private Jewish property in all applicable countries (outside Germany and Austria).

HEART claims a database of 1.5 million entries on such property in the form of real estate, artworks, bank accounts, insurance policies and intellectual property.

Establishment of this new organization is widely seen as a move by Israel’s government to play a more prominent role in Holocaust restitution issues and as an implicit criticism of WJRO’s record in recovering private properties.

Bobby Brown, the Jerusalem-based executive director of HEART, and Anya Verkhovskaya, project director at the U.S. office in Milwaukee, however, told The Journal that HEART would collaborate with the two other organizations to “complement” their work. The Claims Conference, WJRO and HEART all receive support from the Jewish Agency for Israel.

New Holocaust restitution project launched

A new Holocaust-era restitution project will work to identify individuals whose property and assets were confiscated by the Nazis.

Project HEART—Holocaust Era Asset Restitution Taskforce, a new initiative of the Jewish Agency for Israel with support from the government of Israel, was announced Wednesday.

The project will begin by attempting to identify individuals with potential claims regarding types of private property for which no restitution was received after the Holocaust. If restitution has already been made to a victim or their heirs, that property would not be considered eligible under the program.

“Because of the immeasurable damage that was done to Jewish individuals and communities from the time their property was confiscated, Project HEART was put together as an initiative to reach out to those whose pain we can never imagine, but whom we can assist in the process of gathering data, which will hopefully and ultimately aid them in retrieving what is rightfully theirs,” said Bobby Brown of the Jewish Agency, a native New Yorker who has been active in the field of Holocaust restitution for more than a decade. “Belated, yet vital steps to partially redress the terrible wrongdoing committed during the Holocaust era in relation to asset restitution are now being taken with Project HEART.”

A questionnaire to determine eligibility can be found on Project HEART’s website

Israeli comptroller cites ‘many flaws’ of restitution firm

A company established by Israel’s Knesset to return or distribute assets belonging to Holocaust survivors and their heirs has been deficient and slow, a state comptroller’s report said.

The report, released Monday, found “many flaws” in the activities of the Company for the Location and Restitution of Holocaust Victims’ Assets, which was established in 2006. The flaws include not searching actively enough for heirs,  failing to formulate a long-term policy to detect the needs of and help Holocaust survivors, and granting millions of shekels to other organizations established to assist Holocaust survivors that were not eligible to receive the funds.

The report found that the company failed to advertise its assets globally, as it was charged to do three months after it was established, beginning its international campaign three years late, in April 2010.

“Returning the assets of Holocaust victims to their heirs is a moral duty, however it has not been done for years,” the report said. “Repairing the defects, in a short time frame, could slightly repair the injustice that has been done to the owners of the assets and their heirs, and to help Holocaust survivors in their last years of life.”

In response, the company noted in a statement that the report only covered the company’s work until 2009.

“From that day until today, the company has made several important steps to promote the goals for which it was established—locating and returning assets to Holocaust survivors and heirs, assisting Holocaust survivors who need help, and supporting educational and memorial activities,” according to the statement.

Israelis prod Shoah Claims Conference for bigger share

An Israeli coalition, including the Jewish Agency for Israel, Israeli Holocaust survivor organizations and the Knesset’s pensioner affairs minister, is calling on the Claims Conference to give Israel a larger share of Holocaust restitution funds and more control over distribution decisions.

Leaders of the coalition announced Sunday that they were launching a unified effort to get the Claims Conference to recognize the centrality of Israel in its distribution of hundreds of millions of dollars in unclaimed Holocaust-era assets. The new public relations campaign was prompted by the Claims Conference’s “paltry” response to emergency aid requests from Israel during its summertime war in Lebanon, Jewish Agency Chairman Zeev Bielski said.

“Only one agency did not respond when I asked for one-time emergency disbursements during the war in Lebanon this summer: the Claims Conference,” Bielski charged. The conference’s response arrived only after the war, he said, and it was “too little and too late.”

The Claims Conference denied aid requests from the Jewish Agency for hospitals and protected rooms in northern Israel, agency spokesman Yarden Vitikay said, committing only $100,000 after the war to a program for terror victims — this, from what is perhaps the richest Jewish organization in the world. By comparison, the United Jewish Communities umbrella group raised $320 million for northern Israel from its member federations.

Members of the Israeli coalition, including Yad Vashem Chairman Avner Shalev, now are demanding that the Claims Conference boost Israeli representation on its board, transfer most of its operations to Israel and increase the speed and quantity of disbursements to Israeli Holocaust survivors.

This Israeli campaign represents the latest in a long string of efforts to break the Claims Conference’s virtual monopoly of control over hundreds of millions of dollars in Holocaust restitution disbursements. In recent years, various survivor groups, advocates, community leaders and Israeli officials have tried to wrest some control over the restitution process from the conference’s board, with only limited success.

In response to Sunday’s announcement, Claims Conference communications director Hillary Kessler-Godin issued a statement saying, “Issues concerning governance or structure, as well as proposed changes to policy, can be brought to the board of directors of the organization, which meets in July every year.”

Kessler-Godin said the conference “has been outstandingly successful in negotiating for Holocaust-era compensation on behalf of Holocaust survivors worldwide in recovering property, in assisting Nazi victims and in educating future generations about the lessons of the Shoah.”

The Claims Conference has allocated emergency payments of $3.2 million to 13,000 needy Nazi victims in northern Israel, Kessler-Godin said. These are direct payments to assist victims of Nazism affected by the war. The group also recently held information sessions for Nazi victims in Israel’s North concerning their eligibility for payments and assistance from various sources of Holocaust compensation and restitution.

In addition, the Claims Conference has just allocated $1.7 million to build protected rooms in sheltered housing complexes primarily housing victims of Nazism. The Claims Conference is also preparing future projects to assist hospitals in border areas, Kessler-Godin said.

Under agreements dating back to its formation in 1951, the New York-based Claims Conference — formally, the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany — is the lead organization charged with recovering Jewish war-era assets from Germany, and its successor organization has become the legal heir of unclaimed Jewish properties from East Germany.

The value of the assets recovered so far from the former East Germany numbers in the billions of dollars. Every year, the Claims Conference distributes approximately $90 million of that money to organizations of its choice according to a formula whereby 80 percent goes to groups that provide services to survivors and 20 percent goes to Holocaust education and documentation projects.

Projects range from soup kitchens in Russia run by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee to a Tel Aviv-based Yiddish theater troupe that performs for survivors.

In the past, critics like the National Association of Jewish Child Holocaust Survivors’ Leo Rechter and the World Jewish Congress’ former executive vice president, Elan Steinberg, questioned why grants were going to Birthright Israel, Yiddish theater and the installation of sprinkler systems in Israeli nursing homes rather than to needy survivors.

This time, the Israeli critics — including groups that are on the Claims Conference’s board — are focusing not on the types of programs that receive funding, but on the geographic distribution of funds and the composition and location of the body that makes funding decisions.

The Israelis say that they, rather than a multinational board dominated by American Jews, should decide how their share of the money is spent.

“We are a nation of victims of the Holocaust,” said Noah Flug, chairman of the Center of Survivor Organizations in Israel. “Today we have no say. We don’t even have autonomy in deciding how the money is distributed. Neither Israelis nor survivors are making these decisions. Things are decided for us, and without us.”

Israeli Minister for Pensioner Affairs Rafi Eitan — the erstwhile Mossad field officer who captured Nazi fugitive Adolf Eichmann — said the Claims Conference has failed survivors.

Eitan visited particularly harsh criticism on the pace of disbursements, saying money is being hoarded by the Claims Conference rather than being released to survivors while they’re still alive.

“In another 15 years, there won’t be Holocaust survivors around anymore,” Eitan said. “The Claims Conference works according to its own rules, but the money belongs only to the Holocaust survivors.”

The Claims Conference’s spokeswoman declined to respond to specific charges.

Eitan said the fulcrum of the problem lies in the composition of the Claims Conference’s board, which has not changed to keep up with the changing Jewish world. Aside from the addition of three board members, two of them survivor groups added in 1988, there have been no significant changes in the composition of the Claims Conference’s board in the 55 years since it was created. Eitan’s critiques echoed those described by critics in a special JTA investigative series in 2004.

The Israelis say such distortions should be rectified — by giving Israel more control.
“I don’t know if they know it, but the center of the Jewish world is here in Zion,” Bielski told reporters at a press conference Sunday at the Jewish Agency’s headquarters in Jerusalem. “We will continue this campaign until they give us our rightful seats at the table. This is our historic responsibility.

“Our struggle today is over the centrality of the State of Israel,” Bielski said.