Prague hosts crucial conference over return of Jewish property looted by Nazis

26-06-2009

Prague is a hosting a five-day international conference on the return of looted WWII Jewish property. The conference has been billed as a last chance to clear obstacles that have prevented restitution to some of the remaining Holocaust survivors.

The Holocaust Era Assets Conference is being launched in Prague on Friday with representatives from around 50 countries attending as well as survivors’ and educational organisations and experts in restitution.

The conference will take stock of the steps since the last major meeting 11 years ago in Washington sought to speed up the return of works of art, bank savings and property looted by the Nazi regime.

Progress since that conference has been mixed. Some countries - such as Poland – have not yet passed the required legislation for confiscated property to be returned to private owners or their nearest relatives. Laws have been poorly implemented in other cases creating a major hurdle for claimants.

David Peleg is in the Czech capital for the conference as director general of the World Jewish Restitution Organisation. It represents all Jewish groups fighting for restitution. Mr Peleg says the conference is crucial with time now running out for holocaust survivors.

“I hope that this conference will bring more awareness in countries and parliaments and people in countries that by promoting legislation they serve justice and that the people concerned – the survivors – are quite old and every year they are getting a year older. And this is the reason that it is urgent.”

The conference is also likely to tackle the question of what should be done with looted assets in the many cases where there are no survivors to claim them. Mr Peleg again.

“There is a question of what happens to property which is heirless because all of the families were murdered by the Nazis. There is an idea that the money coming out of this heirless property will be used for purposes like welfare of survivors and education and commemoration, but this still has to be seen.”

One Czech initiative to be tabled at the conference is for the creation of a permanent body that would be charged with coordinating and checking up on how restitution issues are being handled internationally. Mr Peleg believes it could help prevent foot dragging on restitution by some countries.

“It is necessary to get agreement on all of the details, but I think that the institute will be in touch with all of the countries and monitor the situation and encourage them to make progress.”

The idea is that this institute could be symbolically sited at the central Bohemian town of Terezín. During WWII the fortress town was used by the Nazis as a collection centre before Jews were dispatched to death camps. Many were also killed or died from malnutrition or disease at the Czech fortress.

26-06-2009