EU presidency to highlight Jewish restitution

Prague Post 13 August 2008
By Curtis M. Wong, Staff Writer.

Local organizations hope international conference will raise awareness

Local Jewish organizations hope that the Czech Republic’s upcoming EU presidency will draw attention to a historical cause — the stolen property of Holocaust victims and their families.

During the country’s 2009 presidential term, Prague will host an international conference June 26 as part of a government initiative to return confiscated property to remaining Czech Holocaust survivors and their descendants.

The conference, which is now in the planning stages, is being held as a follow-up event to mark the 10th anniversary of the Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets, which took place in 1998. According to Tomáš Kraus, executive director of the Federation of Jewish Communities in the Czech Republic, which is one of the event’s co-organizers, conference officials approached Germany and France before opting for Prague, where there was a much stronger local initiative. To date, organizers of the four-day conference have sent formal invitation letters to prime ministers in 45 countries, and Kraus said he expects representatives from the bulk of those regions will be in attendance.    

“The legacy of the Holocaust, as a phenomenon, is so vivid and so urgent that it cannot be forgotten,” Kraus said. “We have been dealing with these types of restitutions since the 1990s, and there have been a lot of ups and downs.”

Kraus’ organization was previously involved in organizing a smaller, localized event that was to be held later this year, which would have focused on an oft-forgotten segment of stolen Holocaust property: the fate of looted artwork. When Czech officials were approached about hosting the international conference, event organizers chose to combine forces and are now planning to include looted art as a key component of the larger event.

“Throughout the course of our research, we discovered that no one had dealt with the fate of looted art on a European scale,” Kraus said, adding that many Jewish property restitutions were handled in the 1990s. He went on to note that, while many countries, including the Czech Republic, have individual databases that chronicle stolen assets of the Holocaust era, there is no central database, though he hopes the conference will motivate European-history officials to create one.

Unresolved issues

While officials say many local Jewish property disputes have been settled in the past few years, not all cases were concluded in the descendant’s favor. In July, Lizbeth Popper, the daughter of a Jewish banker, turned to Czech courts in an effort to reclaim her family’s Bubeneč villa, which Nazi officials confiscated in 1939. To date, Popper has received no compensation.   

“Obviously, there is still a good number of people who have not received anything, neither property nor compensation,” said Marta Malá, director of the Foundation for Holocaust Victims.

Authorities say reclaiming property can be especially complex, and many cases get deadlocked due to the fact that a great deal of legal paperwork such as birth certificates, marriage licenses and other personal documents, some of which may have been destroyed during World War II, is often required.    

“The burden of documentation is usually on the victim,” Kraus said, adding that providing proof is especially difficult for descendants whose family members fled the country and may have renounced their Czech citizenship shortly thereafter. “It takes a lot of time to gather documents and, in some cases, they were destroyed or scattered throughout Europe. People have turned to us and, whenever we can, we advise them. … But we don’t have the capabilities [to advise them all].”

Collective effort

Still, authorities say most of the Jewish community is looking forward to next year’s conference, which is being seen by many as a way to share the findings of their personal research, as well as acknowledge the Holocaust’s historical and personal relevance.

“Representatives from many countries will of course present their activities in the field of returning property or providing compensation for lost property,” Malá said. “But I think the main contribution is going to be the sharing of information, since it’s going to be an international event.”

The conference will be important from a research perspective as well.

“There are many scholars all around the world who are digging deeply into the Holocaust archives,” Kraus said. “Surprisingly, many of them don’t have much connection to their counterparts in other countries, and they do their research independently. This conference will hopefully give them an opportunity to network internationally.”

Authorities, including representatives from the International Task Force for Holocaust Education and Remembrance, are also planning a number of accompanying social and cultural events to be held throughout the conference. Among them is a gala concert, as well as screenings of several documentary films.

“It’s about justice and moral issues,” Kraus said. “We may never have the full picture, but at least we can open some of the chapters.”

— Hela Balínová contributed to this report.
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