Victims of Nazi Art theft need Congress to HEAR

The Hill 1 December 2016
By Ambassador Ronald S. Lauder

The United States prides itself in a legal system that adjudicates the law in the fastest possible amount of time. So, what does one say to victims of a massive crime that took place more than 70 years ago, and continues to be stalled by legal barriers?

Beginning in the 1930s and into the 1940s, the Nazi German government stole massive amounts of art and heirlooms from Jewish homes. Many of the victims later died in concentration camps. But since the war ended in 1945, their heirs have been unable to reclaim their property.

Holocaust survivors and their families have fought to reclaim their artwork all this time only to be unjustly thwarted by outmoded and unfair legal barriers. Allowing this injustice to continue is an unconscionable act that extends the reach of Nazi crimes to the descendants of Holocaust victims attempting to reclaim their family history.

Congress must act during the lame-duck session and pass the Holocaust Expropriated Art Recovery (HEAR) Act (S. 2763 and H.R. 6130) to ensure that each victim’s claim is decided on its merits as opposed to denying those claims on procedural technicalities.

America has rightfully honored the sacrifices and resolve of the American service members who bravely put an end to Nazi oppression in Europe. But few people today know of the Nazis’ systematic theft of their victims’ property, including priceless works of art such as paintings, sculptures, books and sacred or ceremonial objects. During their rise and reign, the Nazis stole millions of pieces of art, robbing countless families of their culture and memories.

While the United States and its allies attempted to return the stolen art to their countries of origin, many pieces were never reunited with their actual owners. The issue remains a heart-wrenching cause for thousands of Jewish descendants, many of whom are U.S. citizens, with rightful claims to their ancestors stolen property.

Imagine if you walked into a museum and saw a painting that once hung in your grandparent’s home. How would you feel, especially if your grandparents had been murdered by the same government that took the painting? Is this justice?

What makes this egregious theft of culture and heritage even worse is how governments, museums, auction houses and unscrupulous collectors quietly allowed it to continue. In many cases, legal barriers like arbitrary statutes of limitations were imposed on families that had not even been aware of the whereabouts of their ancestors’ possessions. This led to costly legal battles, which forced many claimants to give up or discouraged others from coming forward.

Only recently, thanks to the film “Woman in Gold,” and the tireless efforts of restitution advocates and their supporters in Congress, has this issue come to light.

In recent decades, the U.S. has renewed its efforts to resolve this difficult matter. In 1998, the U.S. government joined the international community and restitution advocates in creating the “Washington Principles,” a set of international standards to govern how stolen art cases should be handled.

A little more than a decade later, the U.S. would endorse the Terezin Declaration, which urged signatories to ensure their legal systems “facilitate just and fair solutions with regard to Nazi-confiscated and looted art.”

Sens. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), Ted Cruz (R-Texas), John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), along with Reps. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) and Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) introduced the HEAR Act earlier this year to facilitate the return of Nazi-stolen artworks to their rightful owners.

The HEAR Act establishes a six-year federal statute of limitations for these claims. The clock only starts once a claimant has actual knowledge of a piece of stolen art, meaning the identity, location and sufficient facts to support a claim of ownership.

In September, the Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously passed the HEAR Act, and Goodlatte and Nadler introduced a companion bill in the House, setting the stage for both chambers of Congress to move quickly and the send the HEAR Act to President’s Obama desk before the end of the year.

Justice is long overdue and the time to act is now. The House and Senate must pass the HEAR Act before this session of Congress ends and help bring closure to Holocaust victims and their families while reestablishing American moral leadership on this important issue.

If these victims cannot still find justice, this really mocks all the sacrifices of American boys and our Allies more than 70 years ago. They were true for us. Now let us be true for them.

Ronald S. Lauder is a former ambassador to Austria and is the Chairman of the Commission for Art Recovery.
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