(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Britain may soon begin a public relations campaign to convince Poles of the importance of Holocaust restitution, according to Prime Minister David Cameron’s Post-Holocaust Issues Envoy Sir Eric Pickles.
Interviewed in Jerusalem during a short visit here, the Conservative MP and former secretary of state for communities and local government, appeared bullish on the possibilities of overcoming decades of reluctance in Warsaw to engage in serious restitution work.
Last year, 50 British MPs sent a letter to then-Polish prime minister Donald Tusk, demanding the passage of a restitution law.
According to the World Jewish Restitution Organization, “a generation after the fall of Communist regimes, many Holocaust victims and their families are still fighting for the return of their property from Poland and other countries in Central and Eastern Europe.”
Pickles will be the first to admit that he is anything but shy and retiring, with the chairman of Conservative Friends of Israel having recently publicly criticized the British Foreign Office of “turning a blind eye to Palestinian incitement of violence.”
It is this outspoken candor that he wishes to bring to bear on Holocaust matters, he said.
“You can kind of understand a lot of property issues there are very complex, not just in terms of the war but also in terms of the involvement of the communist regime. But when it comes down to it, fundamentally, the Nazis were thieves, they were gangsters. They stole your right to work, they stole your tools of the trade, they stole your property, they stole your clothes, they stole your identity, and they tried to remove you from history. And so long as there are items out there that haven’t been restored to their rightful owners, then a little bit of the Holocaust holds on to individuals,” Pickles said.
“It might be the signature on the flyleaf of a book, and that might be the only evidence that a grandchild has of what their grandparent’s signature actually looked like. It might be things that are immensely personal, and I think it would be – as we start to move in that period where people who had direct and personal experience of the Holocaust start to disappear – I think we need to give it a push.”
Asked about his plans for the future, Pickles replied that “we’re looking at a number of particular properties that have been lost and are out on public display and I think I might make a little bit of fuss about them. We think it’s time that there should be a wider knowledge about them and we’ll be doing something about that reasonably soon.”
Regarding how he plans on making progress after decades of stalled efforts, he believes that there has been “disengagement with the public.
“I think sometimes this has been forgotten and I think we need to raise the level of people’s understanding about this. There are more ways of getting to a particular problem than just appealing to government,” he said, suggesting a PR campaign in Poland.
Pickles also indicated that Britain, which has thus far not taken a hard stance on recent data protection legislation in the European Parliament that has drawn the ire of Holocaust historians, may be changing its tune.
The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance has been lobbying legislators and bureaucrats in Brussels since 2012 over the wording of a small portion of the General Data Protection Regulation, a measure being touted by policy-makers as creating a “right to be forgotten” for EU citizens.
Researchers across the continent – especially in Sweden, France and Germany – have claimed that archivists have begun restricting access to data, citing the GDPR as their rationale for not complying with requests for documents.
“My recommendation is that we should support it,” Pickles said of the IHRA amendment.
When asked about recent EU labeling guidelines for settlement products, Pickles came out strongly against any boycott of Israel.
“We’ve had a system of labeling in the UK of Israeli goods and other goods since 2009. During that period, the amount of trade that we’ve done with Israel has doubled. My own view about it is that it’s simple. If you’re going to have something about disputed occupation of land, well there’s plenty of other places to look at. There’s Crimea, there’s parts of the Ukraine, there’s bits of Cyprus, let’s have a degree of reciprocity,” he said.
“We are totally, and utterly, opposed to a boycott. We’ll be changing our laws to ensure that public bodies cannot engage in a boycott. We’re issuing guidance to public bodies – local authorities – who are quite big investors, that they can’t use that to disinvest in Israel. People need to understand that Israel and the United Kingdom have a pretty integrated economy.
One out of six of every medical prescription comes from an Israeli patent.
We’re doing enormous work on the heart, on diabetes, on Alzheimer’s. It’s not just about trading on arms, it’s about the nature, and Israel is a vital and important ally in the Middle East and we should hold her dear.”