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Europe speaks out on historical justice

Many countries are failing to honor their obligation to compensate the few remaining Holocaust victims

The call for historical justice was heard loud and clear this week in the heart of Europe. At a conference in the European Parliament in Brussels, President of the Parliament, Antonio Tajani said: “Restitution, together with remembrance and reconciliation, is a fundamental element to restore justice after the Holocaust.” He went on to tell the participants including Holocaust victims: “I will support you, not only today, but every day.”

His commitment was echoed by Members of the European Parliament (MEP’s) from countries across Europe and from different political groupings.

MEP Gunnar Hökmark from Sweden urged the European Parliament to “do everything possible to give survivors and their families the peace and dignity they deserve, and help them secure what is rightly theirs.” MEP Charles Goerens of Luxembourg called on his colleagues “to make the issue of restitution a priority.” Other MEP’s are signing on to a declaration that affirms “the moral responsibility of European Union member states to advance Holocaust-era property restitution.”

Speaking of the 2009 Terezin Declaration endorsed by 47 countries, which affirmed the importance of restituting or compensating Holocaust-related confiscations made during the Holocaust era, French Ambassador for Human Rights at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, François Croquette said: “More than ever, the Terezin Declaration is a pressing moral imperative. We must actively work to bring justice to victims of Nazi persecution and secure compensation for them.”

They were joined by MEP’s, diplomats and Holocaust survivors.

A 1,200 page report released in advance of the conference, the first such comprehensive report of its kind, found that many former Communist states of Eastern Europe, notably Poland, have not yet fulfilled their Terezin Declaration obligations to enact comprehensive immovable property legislation, and that a ‘substantial amount’ of property confiscated from European Jews remains unrestituted.

The World Jewish Restitution Organization was one of the organizers of the conference together with the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Social Equality and other governments and organizations.

Our message was one of urgency:

A few hundred thousand aging victims of the Holocaust are still alive today. But soon we will face a world where there will be none. Soon there will not be anyone to stand up at a conference and say…”I was there”.

The effort to secure restitution is about many things.

It is about memory; it is about history, and it is about justice.

It is about returning that which was taken from those who lost so much. And it is about using the possessions which belonged to those whose entire family was killed, who died heirless, in order to help those who survived.

We cannot bring back the murdered. We cannot help survivors to forget the horrors of what they lived through. We cannot resurrect the destroyed homes, or the Jewish communities – the synagogues and yeshivas – where Jewish life once thrived.

But we can stand up and say – history matters. A Jewish school stood here. A tailor’s shop was in this place. A house was there. A hardworking family with young children sat around the kitchen table in that very home every evening talking about their daily lives…. until it was all shattered in the Holocaust.

To ignore that history is to deny it.

Historical justice sometimes means looking into the dark chapters of history where we would much rather not go. But we need to, not so that we look backwards but so that we can look forwards, proud that history was not trampled on or belittled or ignored. Proud that we faced up to that history and dealt with its consequences.

“There is a moral obligation to the survivors and the dead, to memory and identity, the link of families to their roots and repairing a historic injustice,” 87 year old Holocaust survivor Ben Helfgott told the conference.

That is the task before us.

Before it is too late.

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(L-R) President of the European Parliament Antonio Tajani; MEP Gunnar Hökmark; WJRO Chair of Operations Gideon Taylor (Photo: Charles Goerens)
About the Author
Gideon Taylor is the Chair of Operations for the World Jewish Restitution Organization, which represents world Jewry in pursuing claims for the recovery of Jewish properties seized during the Holocaust in Eastern Europe
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