Holocaust Restitution: A Major Step Forward in Europe

As 2015 comes to a close, so do the events commemorating the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II and the Holocaust. Much has been said about what the world has learned from this unprecedented genocide, crime against humanity, and what may be the greatest theft in history.

Yet it is time for those words to lead to action, while the last of the survivors are still with us. Many Holocaust victims, heirs and Jewish communities of Europe have waited far too long for the restitution of, and compensation for, Holocaust-era property.

Just this week, 36 Members of the European Parliament from 18 nations formed a broad political coalition, the European Alliance for Holocaust Survivors, to develop a continental and supranational approach to resolving these wartime issues.

This notable group of lawmakers’ inaugural effort was a public letter to European Parliament President Martin Schulz, urging his leadership in honing the legislative body’s focus on myriad Holocaust-related matters, including the designation of a vice president who would specifically address concerns facing Holocaust survivors.

In the letter, the parliamentarians wrote, “The European Parliament should continue to play an important role in encouraging member-states — and states applying for membership in the European Union — to address remaining human rights issues relating to confiscation of property and to strengthen efforts to meet the physical and emotional needs of elderly survivors and to promote Holocaust remembrance and education.”

The World Jewish Restitution Organization helped to launch this initiative, which links diverse voices from across Europe, all of them understanding that Holocaust-related issues are not limited to the United States or Israel. Rather, the scope is international, and Europe, as a whole and as individual member-states, must act justly and fairly now.

Holocaust survivors who continue to wait for a measure of justice often do so while living in poverty, struggling to meet their most basic needs for shelter, food and medicine. In addition, even seven decades after the war’s end, Jewish communities devastated by the Holocaust and by subsequent Communist regimes continue to wait for the return of communal property urgently needed for revitalization and survival.

To be sure, resolving wartime property matters is far from controversial. After a number of conferences and the approval of the Terezin Declaration on Holocaust Era Assets and Related Issues in 2009, an international consensus exists: Forty-seven countries endorsed principles to promote the restitution of property taken during and after the Holocaust; to improve the welfare of aging survivors; and to guarantee that “never forget” is not merely a slogan, but an enduring call to action.

Some European countries have taken noteworthy strides to come to terms with their history; others have not yet met the standards set forth in the Terezin Declaration. Some countries have laws and claims processes in place, but the measures are bureaucratic and incomplete; others recognize that they should pass laws, but have not yet mustered the political will to do so.

As survivors age, now is the time for an even broader international coalition — in Europe and around the world — to seek a measure of justice and to guarantee that Holocaust survivors, heirs and Jewish communities receive the restitution or compensation they so belatedly deserve.

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