Envoys from America, Europe and Israel attend first meeting in London as Pickles admits 'We need to get a grip on this in the next five years, or it will be too late'
Lord Pickles, the UK special envoy for post-Holocaust issues, has hosted a meeting of envoys from America, Europe and Israel, to discuss emergency steps to address the injustices over property restitution.
Foreign Secretary James Cleverly also spoke at the historic meeting, which took place in Westminster, to express the UK government’s continued commitment to ensuring property stolen in the Nazi era is returned to its rightful owners.
“This is the last big push,” said Lord Pickles, who had worked tirelessly on the issue in the UK, prior to the current collaboration with envoys from 12 countries, and a team of experts on looted art.
“We need to get a grip on this in the next five years, or it will be too late” he added.
Pickles confirmed there are approximately five million items, some valuable, some not, that are being asked to be returned to familes or individuals who suffered at the hands of the Nazis.
He stressed that the main issue at stake was the restoration of “dignity” for those still waiting for stolen items to be returned.
With fewer and fewer survivors still living, there was increased urgency to his work on solving the problems around the issue.
Wednesday’s initial meeting had focused on “talking about the problems around looted art” Ellen Germain, the US special envoy for Holocaust issues, confirmed.
“It’s not about property, it’s not about money, it’s not about art, it’s about justice, which is late, but not too late,” Israeli special envoy for the restitution of Holocaust era assets, ambassador Yossef Levy said at a media briefing on Wednesday.
“Justice for the the Holocaust survivors and justice for the millions of Jews who did not survive the Holocaust.”
The envoys explained how political developments such as the war in Ukraine, and the uncooperative attitude of governments in Poland and Hungary over property restitution had come to impact on the task of returning property stolen by the Nazis to their rightful owners.
But there are “success stories,”Mark Weitzman from the World Jewish Restoration Oraganisation said citing countries such as Lithuania and Lativia.
“Moldova is taking it’s first real concrete steps, Weitzman added, but “still has a lot to do.
“It’s uncomfotable history for many people and countries, it challenges their national narrative.”
Lord Pickles added he had met with representatives from Croatia, who was “enthusiastic” on the issue “and wanted to learn.”
The Conservative peer said he “let the meeting with a feeling of optimism.”
Pickles also raised the ugly spectre of German citizens in the 1950s walking around streets wearing clothing or other items that had been stolen from Jews murdered in the death camps.
US envoy Germain spoke of the task of discovering whether there is a legal process in a particular country to recover looted art, which “may have been sold to their current owner without them knowing” it was actually stolen.
In a tweet Cleverly later thanked Pickles for “convening this important meeting” adding that his work is “greatly appreciated.”
The envoys – who also included representatives from Austria, Canada, Croatia, France, Germany, Netherlands and Romania – have agreed to meet again soon to continue their work.