‘We can’t move forward without recognizing the past’

WJRO pushes for internationalization of restitution issue.

(photo credit: FRANCESCO SERAFINI)
Restitution for Holocaust survivors is not just a Jewish or Israeli issue, was the oft-repeated message of Gideon Taylor, chairman of operations at the World Jewish Restitution Organization, to The Jerusalem Post this week as the group works to internationalize the subject and make relevant countries compensate survivors.
“This isn’t just about property, it’s also about history,” Taylor asserted in an interview with the Post on Sunday at the Royal Beach Hotel in Tel Aviv. “We believe that pressing this argument with countries is about recognizing what happened... that the home belonged to someone. It is about recognizing history. It’s an issue of morality and justice.”
There are several types of restitution, ranging from the returning of communal property to the Jewish community; private, unclaimed or property with no heirs; and financial support for needy survivors.
The Terezin Declaration, approved by 47 countries at the conclusion of the 2009 Holocaust Era Assets Conference in Prague, announced a program of activities geared toward ensuring assistance, redress and remembrance for victims of Nazi persecution.
“That was a big push because it said that there’s an international consensus,” said Taylor. “In the last few years, there has been a renewed effort because of follow-on from the declaration and the sense that – as survivors are aging and soon we will live in a world where there won’t be any left – it’s time to make a renewed push.”
A day after his interview with the Post representatives of more than 20 countries on Monday signed a declaration pledging to increase support for Holocaust survivors and their families who are seeking the return of stolen WWII property.
“Our focus is on Europe... so it’s very important to us to gain support from the European Union,” he said.
The World Jewish Restitution Organization had approached European Parliament members with the declaration following a conference on the issue held in Brussels in May, where Parliament President Antonio Tajani urged European countries to step up efforts to ensure the return of seized property and possessions.
The organization considers Israel a crucial partner in its efforts.
In May, President Reuven Rivlin hosted an even to raise awareness of the issue at which he said: “We always say: ‘Crime doesn’t pay.’ But for many people the crimes of the Holocaust did pay. We cannot allow this. The property must be returned.
In addition, time is running out – fewer than 400,000 survivors are alive today.
The issue is biggest in Poland, the heartland of Jewish Europe before the Holocaust.
“In Poland, it affects both Jews and non-Jews – the confiscations took place by the Communists,” said Taylor, indicating that in meetings with Polish officials the World Jewish Restitution Organization emphasizes the fact that it is a Polish issue.
“If Poland wants to move forward in today’s world... you can’t move forward without addressing issues of the past,” he said.
Earlier this year, legislation went into effect in Warsaw providing a six month framework for people to seek restitution of property.
Taylor cited Serbia as an example of a country that has acknowledged the historical importance of restitution.
World Jewish Restitution Organization representatives approached Serbian officials several years ago, indicating that the state had not addressed the issue of property with no apparent heirs, to which the state usually is entitled.
“But our principle is that this is different,” said Taylor. Serbia agreed and passed legislation last year to return property and to help Holocaust survivors and the native Jewish community.
“Their acknowledgment that this was a historical issue was most profound – they see this in moral terms.
It wasn’t a legal issue for them,” said Taylor, who indicated that the World Jewish Restitution Organization is holding similar negotiations with the Hungarian government.
“We have one last small window while the survivors are still with us,” he said. “It’s difficult many years after the fact, but we can’t move forward without addressing the past.”