Address for restitution

A follow-up to the 1998 international conference should be held in Berlin.

yellow star 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
yellow star 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
A few days after Yom Hashoah, a nasty drama played out in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. It was not about terrorism, the war in Iraq or aid to Israel. It was about a proposed law that would enable individuals to sue in US courts to recover Nazi-era insurance policies. There are many Holocaust restitution issues that remain unresolved and highly problematic 70 years after the Anschluss. Given how little attention the Congress has paid to survivors and their interests in recent years, when the esteemed Foreign Relations Committee finally took notice, it seemed tragic that this law was its primary focus. The committee hearing, convened by Senator Bill Nelson of Florida, made clear yet again that Holocaust survivors are a bitterly divided group, with some for the proposed law, some against - bitterly. Of course they are. When it comes to recovering anything that was lost during the Shoah, a lot of pain is part of the package. But the most painful aspect seems to be the Bush administration's absolute lack of interest in building on the Clinton administration's relentless pursuit of restitution of assets that were looted or lost during the Nazi and communist eras. IT IS too easy, though, to point fingers only at the White House. Whether it was competitive or cooperative, Congress was no less vigorous than the Clinton administration on these issues in the late 1990s. It held quite a few oversight hearings and pushed legislation intended to help Holocaust survivors and their heirs with Swiss bank accounts, insurance policies written by European companies, compensation for slave labor and the recovery of Nazi-looted artworks. In December 1998, the State Department convened the Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets, at which 44 nations endorsed the "Washington Principles." These were nonbinding, moral protocols under which countries pledged to locate, identify and return Nazi-looted artworks that remained in their national collections. Some governments - notably Germany, Austria, the Netherlands and Britain - have taken these principles seriously. Others seem nonchalant. And there has been no compelling reason for them to act otherwise. The 1998 event was the last major diplomatic conference on victims' material losses. Without international conferences or serious congressional oversight hearings on these issues, there is no pressure or incentive for governments to act. Clearly no one will call them to account, despite all the fine sentiments and emotional speeches of a decade ago. It seems that the only positive thing to come out of that bizarre Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing earlier this month was a proposed bipartisan resolution calling for the restitution of Nazi victims' property and assistance to those who are in need. It also calls for convening - as soon as possible - a follow-up international conference for governments and non-governmental organizations to deal with restitution. NOT A moment too soon. A decade ago, there was a sense of urgency because survivors were in the twilight of their lives. How much later it is today. It is urgent that some government send out invitations to persuade nations to identify what they have done to fulfill their vow to restore victims' properties, and what remains to be done. The most fitting time and place would be in Germany in November, the 70th anniversary of Kristallnacht. German cultural officials are said to be too nervous to host a conference. That seems short-sighted. Germany likely would be criticized for declining to host it, not for inviting 44 nations to reprise the 1998 Washington Conference. While it is true that one can never compensate victims for the horrors of the Holocaust, Germany is unlikely to be singled out for restitution criticism; it had model programs for the restoration of real estate. And diplomatic guests at Germany's conference table would be too well-mannered to offend their host. In addition to Washington, London hosted a conference on Nazi gold in 1997, and Stockholm in 2000 on Holocaust education. Vilnius was the site of a scaled-down conference on cultural properties later that year. Berlin is the only logical remaining choice. There is no other city with its stature or its history. A Berlin conference also would confirm the sincerity of Chancellor Angela Merkel's speech to the Knesset. "The Shoah fills us Germans with shame," she said. "I bow before the victims. I bow before the survivors and before all those who helped them survive." The restoration of property rights - a human right - is a significant aspect of survival. Let's talk about it. In Berlin.