Presentation of the official delegation of B'nai B'rith at the Vilnius Forum
Daniel Mariachin, Executive Vice President of B'nai B'rith
3-5 October 2000
B'nai B'rith sent a delegation led by Daniel Mariachin to the Vilnius International Forum on Holocaust Era Looted Assets (3-5 October 2000) and gave the presentation set out below.
It is a privilege to speak before this most important gathering of governments, organizations and institutions concerned about justice and restitution. In a way, is a completing of the circle for me: my mother was born not too far from this place, and her family lived not only in Vilnius and Kaunas, but in and several small villages in the country.
For all we can really hope to do for those who lost their lives, their dignity, indeed their very humanity, in that crime of crimes, the Holocaust, is to give the survivors and the descendants of the victims some measure of justice and restitution.
But - if you will indulge me - let me begin my brief remarks with a little semantics. The word ''recovery'' has several meanings in the English language. One of them means to ''recover'' property lost or stolen. Another means to ''recover'' form an illness or a medical condition.
I submit that what we are engaged in during these three days in Vilnius serves both meanings.
We are here to help individuals and institutions recover what legitimately belongs to them, no matter how many hands it has passed through. Indeed, in her remarks this morning, Dr. Grimsted referred to documents, books and other cultural object confiscated by the Nazis, which ultimately found their way to Moscow at the end of the War. The B'nai B'rith archives of Germany, Austria and Greece are among those documents. We are hopeful, with the help of several governments, of retrieving those files one day soon.
But we are also here to help the world recover from a terrible pandemic : the pandemic of persecution, murder, and plunder that was the Europe of Nazi Germany and the fate of European Jewry.
I firmly believe that there can be no recovery from that pandemic without justice and restitution.
We all know that the ''pathogens'' of that pandemic were not just Germans, but their help-mates and their fellow-travelers in the countries they occupied. And one of those countries was the one we meet in today, Lithuania.
Lithuania, where 94 percent of the Jewish community perished at the hands of the Nazis and their collaborators. Vilnius was once regarded as Europe's Jerusalem, '' a city so rich and bountiful in Jewish culture that its creative radiance brightened and invigorated Jewish life everywhere. Indeed, Lithuania's pre-war Jewish culture continues to have a profound impact on Jewish culture today.
Of course that Lithuania - like a lot Jewish communities in pre-war Europe-now exists only in the hearts and collective memories of our people. What still exists, however, are the tangible remnants of that once great, golden culture: books, scrolls, sacred objects, and works of art.
Four years ago, I was involved in the beginning process of recovering nearly 50 000 Jewish books, newspapers, periodicals and hundreds of Torah scrolls and other sacred object much of which was discovered in the St. George Church in Vilnius. Some of them have now been returned to the Lithuanian Jewish community. Yesterday's action in Parliament, on the matter of return of the Torah Scrolls, is an another important step forward.
B'nai B'rith continues to play a role helping Jews and Jewish communities recover their property - communal and private property that was first stolen by the Nazis, then nationalized under the Communists. As a constituent member of the World Jewish Restitution Organizations, we are asking that governments, including our host government - both national and municipal - do the right thing by returning the property or making restitution for the loss.
We want a bright future for all the countries represented at this conference. But one cannot build a bright future without rectifying the mistakes of the past. Without that, the past will surely poison the future.
But rectifying the mistakes of the past is of course not just about material compensations. It is - as I mentioned at the beginning of my remarks - about justice. And justice means calling people to account, people who committed the unspeakable crimes of the Nazi era.
Only one Nazi war criminal has actually been brought to trial and convicted in the former communist countries of the Soviet bloc and Eastern Europe. And I cannot emphasize enough: there is no statute of limitation on crimes like this. And there can be no mitigating circumstances for not putting these people on trial, such as age or health, or the simple passage of time.
But returning to the subject of this conference, my organization, I am pleased to report, now hopes to play a key role in helping survivors and the descendants of victims recover their works of art and cultural property.
This past year a committee was formed under our auspices to monitor are and cultural property restitution issues, and to review policies and developments which bear on the preservation of our Jewish cultural heritage an the resolutions of property claims.
B'nai B'rith - which is no stranger to Holocaust restitution issues; is also committed to press for uniform and reasonable standards by which survivors and descendants can proceed with and process claims. And by which they can achieve remedies.
With our B'nai B'rith Klutznick National Jewish Museum, in Washington, D.C. we have initiated a program to aid, inform and provide individual guidance to survivors on establishing and pursuing their claims. To this end, we are setting up a new website, offering a write-in service for specific information on Holocaust restitution issues and claims.
What's more, we are now studying the feasibility of creating a king of legal aid bureau, so that claimants will be able to receive free legal counsel on how to proceed.
Let me be clear. We have no illusions about the task before us. It is nothing less than monumental. Researching holdings and even ongoing transactions is a daunting task indeed, involving - for one thing - very formidable legal issues. It will require patience, perseverance, and, most of all, that quality that was such short supply during the Holocaust: simple good will.
Over a half century ago, the Jewish people found itself largely abandoned by the world. Yes, there were exceptions - by individuals, by institutions, and even some governments - but for the most part, people and nations turned their back on us.
As I said at the beginning, we cannot bring back those lives that were so tragically lost in Hitler's Inferno. But we can help bring back some of the property lost. And in so doing, countries will not only be helping that rue owners and their heirs redeem what is rightfully theirs. They will also be ''redeeming'' themselves. For this historic effort at recovery is, in the most profound sense, an act of redemption, from a world that cared too little sixty years ago.
Thank you for your attention. And thank you, most of all, for being here.