Shining a spotlight on a dark period of history

President Trump this week signed the Justice for Uncompensated Survivors Today (JUST) Act into law. His signature, following unanimous passage of the law by the United States House of Representatives and Senate sends a powerful message of the support by the entire US government in the effort to secure a measure of justice for Holocaust survivors.

The JUST Act requires the State Department to investigate and submit a report to Congress on the state of restitution of Holocaust-era assets in European countries.

Seventy-three years after the Holocaust, there is a growing understanding that the world must shine a spotlight on the looting of Jewish assets during the Holocaust and on the need for just restitution or compensation.

As Israeli President Reuven Rivlin said in Poland on Yom Hashoah: “Too many citizens, in Eastern Europe and in Western Europe, stole Jewish property, took control of Jewish homes, handed over their Jewish neighbors, murdered them, and turned their backs on those who, just a moment before, had been a part of them.”

Indeed, passage of the JUST Act is a clarion call for justice and a demand for accountability.

Members of the House and Senate from across the country and from both parties came together to say to Holocaust survivors – “we remember” and “we care”. Members of Congress said loudly and clearly to countries across Europe and beyond, that the struggle to do justice for Holocaust survivors is a priority for the United States of America. The United States has long led the fight for justice for Holocaust survivors. The JUST Act renews that commitment.

The bi-partisan effort was led by Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D.-Wis.), Sen. Marco Rubio (R.-Fla.), Rep. Joseph Crowley (D.-N.Y.) and Rep. Chris Smith (R.-N.J.).

Welcoming the passage of the law, Senator Baldwin declared that Holocaust survivors and the families of Holocaust victims “have waited far too long to recover, or receive compensation for, what is rightfully theirs, and by highlighting this issue as an American foreign policy priority, we will spur action in countries that are falling short of their obligations.” Senator Rubio spoke of the importance of the legislation: “By enhancing ongoing efforts between the State Department and European countries, this bill will help facilitate long deserved restitution to survivors and their families whose property was stolen during the Holocaust.”

This expression of Congressional support comes soon after a letter to the Polish Prime Minister signed by 59 Senators calling for passage of a comprehensive private property restitution law that would be fair and just to everyone, including to Holocaust survivors and their families. The letter expressed concern about draft legislation published by the Polish Ministry of Justice: “This draft legislation would adversely affect Holocaust victims and their heirs and is therefore of urgent importance to many of our constituents, millions of Americans, and Holocaust survivors around the world.”

Nor is the issue one that is of concern only in the United States and Israel. Last year, European Parliament members backed a pledge to boost support for Holocaust survivors and their families seeking the return of property looted during the war. The declaration affirms “the moral responsibility of European Union member-states to advance Holocaust-era property restitution.”

In 2009, 47 countries endorsed the Terezin Declaration on Holocaust Era Assets and Related Issues pledging to provide restitution. The declaration set forth standards for the return of, or compensation for, Jewish private, communal and heirless property taken during the war. The JUST Act focuses on the implementation of that international declaration.

“If you walk out the front door of this building and head down the street, you’ll find yourself at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum,” Congressman Crowley said recently during debate on the JUST Act on the floor of the House of Representatives. “It’s a powerful institution and one that reminds us not only of the heroic role played by the United States during World War II but also the tremendous suffering faced by the Jewish people and all victims of the Holocaust. For me it is also a reminder that if we can take steps to try to right more of the wrongs committed during the Holocaust we should take the opportunity to do so. I believe this bill is an opportunity to do that.”

The JUST Act will shine a spotlight on a dark period of history. From that light must come accountability and a small measure of historic justice for those who lost so much.

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