Holocaust restitution now

Though the Holocaust took place in Europe, the US has always been the leader in Holocaust restitution.

A MAN looks at a painting titled ‘The Bathers’ during a 2008 exhibition devoted to finding owners of paintings looted by the Nazis. (photo credit: REUTERS)
A MAN looks at a painting titled ‘The Bathers’ during a 2008 exhibition devoted to finding owners of paintings looted by the Nazis.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
US senators Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisconsin) and Marco Rubio (R-Florida) should be commended for the introduction of the bipartisan bill known the JUST Act (“Justice for Uncompensated Survivors Today Act”), passed unanimously by both houses of Congress and signed by the president last week.
The new law focuses on an important unresolved legacy from World War II: the failure to return Jewish property stolen from the Jews during the Holocaust. The situation is most acute in the former Communist states of Eastern Europe, where the Jewish families became double victims, first of Nazism and the Communism.
The JUST Act directs the State Department, with respect to 43 countries that in 2009 signed the Terezin Declaration on Holocaust-Era Assets and Related Issues, to issue an annual assessment of the nature and extent of national laws or enforceable policies in Europe regarding the identification, return, or restitution of wrongfully seized or transferred Holocaust-era assets, and compliance with the goals of the Terezin Declaration to return such assets or provide appropriate compensation for what was stolen. The extensive immovable property restitution study commissioned by the European Shoah Legacy Institute (ESLI), created in 2010 from the Terezin process, can serve as a base of annual comparison for the State Department.
Though the Holocaust took place in Europe, the US has always been the leader in Holocaust restitution.
American leadership begin in the immediate aftermath of the war, when the US Army allowed the establishment of Jewish successor organizations in occupied Germany to return Jewish property stolen during the Nazi era. American efforts continued into the 1990s, when class action lawsuits in American courts and American engagement with its European allies led to approximately $8 billion in restitution of bank accounts, insurance policies and aid to Holocaust survivors. The JUST Act is the latest development in that noble process. Supporters of the JUST Act argue the Act could help bring a level of closure after what has been in some cases seven decades or more of unaccounted- for thefts.
The US government now starts with a clean slate to efficiently approach other countries on Holocaust restitution. It needs to carry out all recommendations of the 2000 US Presidential Advisory Commission on Holocaust Assets, which recommended that “The United States should continue its leadership to promote the international community’s commitment to addressing asset restitution issues.”
Israel has achieved recently a clean slate, except for art restitution that will be dealt with shortly. The government-crated non-profit company Hashava for 11 years restituted Holocaust-era assets found in Israel.
It closed shop on December 31, 2017, after returning close to 80% in restituted assets and aiding elderly Holocaust survivors living in Israel. Now Israel can approach other countries for Holocaust restitution without being apologetic.
The value of Holocaust property left behind in Europe was estimated at $13-15 billion in 1938 values, worth nowadays hundreds of billions of dollars. At most, 15%-20% was restituted. This was the property of nine million of European Jews, of which six million perished in the Holocaust.
The Israeli government can no longer be a bystander, as it was so far, and depend on the US to prod the Europeans to carry out Holocaust restitution. The Israeli government should lead the process by developing a long-term plan approved by the government with milestones and an operating budget. The plan should include the creation of a new format in Brussels for Holocaust restitution, instead of ESLI that was closed prematurely in August 2017.
Every country can afford full Holocaust restitution by issuing long-term government bonds and raising the necessary funds on domestic and international money markets. The proceeds will serve for Holocaust restitution and compensation, and for depositing the value of heirless property in the proposed joint foundations.
All these proposals can offer a measure of justice to Holocaust survivors and their heirs. It is high time, before the aging first-generation Holocaust survivors soon pass away.
Aron Mor is a Fulbright Fellow and has been involved in Holocaust restitution for the past 20 years. He acted as adviser to the Prime Minister’s Office on issues relating to Holocaust restitution, and compiled a report on the restitution of Jewish property since 1952. He is an advisory board member of the European Shoah Legacy Institute (ESLI) in Prague.
Michael Bazyler is a professor of law at Chapman University Fowler School of Law and author of three books on Holocaust restitution.