U.S. Holocaust issues envoy urges East European nations to return stolen Jewish property


(JTA) — The United States’ special envoy for Holocaust issues urged East European nations to honor their largely-unimplemented promise from 2009 to offer restitution for property stolen from Jews.

Thomas K. Yazdgerdi appealed to these countries “to provide justice for survivors and their families for the expropriation of their property” during a high-level conference in Brussels Wednesday on restitution, where special attention was devoted to the 2009 Terezin Deceleration. In that statement, many European countries for the first time vowed to resolve Holocaust-related property claims. Many of them, however, have not followed through.

“We will continue to encourage countries to restitute illegally-confiscated communal and private property to rightful owners,” Yazdgerdi said. “We fully support our European partners in their work towards achieving the principles set out in the Terezin Declaration.”

Among the cosignatories of the landmark declaration from 2009 was Poland, which has resisted calls to follow the example of other European countries and pass legislation offering restitution for billions of dollars’ worth of privately owned property which used to belong to Jews murdered in the Holocaust.

Romania, another co-signatory which does have laws passed in the previous decades that ensure restitution of privately-owned and communal property, has systematically delayed their implementation, according to the World Jewish Restitution Organization, which co-organized the conference at the European Parliament in Brussels together with officials from the parliament.

“Too many survivors are living in poverty, without adequate welfare support, while some states and individuals continue to benefit from properties wrongfully seized from Jewish people during the Holocaust,” Gideon Taylor, the organization’s chair of operations, said during the conference.

Speakers at the conference included the European Parliament lawmaker Gunnar Hökmark of Sweden and three of his colleagues who head the European Alliance for Holocaust Survivors. Former Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Natan Sharansky, who heads the Jewish Agency, also attended the event along with Bosnian Foreign Minister Igor Crnadak.

Also speaking at the event were Holocaust survivors, including the Polish-born  British Holocaust survivor and former champion weightlifter Ben Helfgott.

“Economic discrimination and the seizure of Jewish property were integral parts of the Holocaust; humiliating us, stripping us of our worth, rendering us worthless. A quantifiable total of 12 billion British pounds ($15.5 million) was taken from German Jews alone, not including the less tangible thefts of Jewish communal property,” he said.

Whereas “in Western and Central Europe, the process to return stolen Jewish property or offer compensation began in the 1950s and has been growing ever since,” Helfgott said, “in most Eastern European countries, the majority of stolen Jewish property has not been returned.”