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Restitution of property looted by the Nazis takes on new urgency.
So, for now, her father's art work continues to languish out of sight in the museum's storage room. No one from the museum could be reached for comment.
There are thousands more cases — each with their own variations, but broadly similar to that of Friedman-Morris. She, in fact, is luckier than many because her father's diaries gave her clues as to where to look. Others don't know where to begin their search.
A declaration passed at the conference, and signed by 46 participating states, calls on signatories to, among things, expedite the opening of archives to help victims and their heirs locate property; pass laws to ease the bureaucratic transfer of property; and make funds available to compensate for lost property; and help those who are struggling economically.
They're all the “right things." Except that it's all non-binding, which means that there is no legal force behind it, just like the first such conference in 1998. The focus then was more on communal property, and the resulting “Washington Principles” sought to cajole governments to return stolen property without the force of law. As a result, most countries ignored their commitments.
Ironically, the result has been that Germany and Austria have paid out billions of dollars in compensation, but their East European neighbors, who view themselves as Nazi victims, have generally refused to make amends. No one questions that Germany's neighbors were also victims, but Holocaust restitution advocates point out that much of the looted property and art is believed to be in government hands today.
Stuart Eizenstat, who is leading the U.S. delegation, estimates that the Nazis plundered $17 billion — which would be worth $170 billion today — worth of movable and immovable property from Jews, Gypsies and other ethnic or social groups they targeted.
“The Holocaust was not only the greatest genocide in history, it was also the greatest theft in history,” Eizenstat said in an interview. “We're also focusing on social needs of 170,000 survivors, a third of which are at or below the poverty line. It's unacceptable that people who suffered so much in their early lives should now have to live in deprivation and choose between food and medicine.”
He also lauded the proposal to establish the Terezin Institute, to be located at the site of the former concentration camp, which he said would be tasked with developing restitution and compensation guidelines for regional countries.
One advocate for the Holocaust victims made it clear that he would very much prefer a binding declaration to a non-binding one. But he insisted the conference is still important “because it forces people to dance,” he said, explaining that the conference creates social pressure for action.
Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Laureate Elie Wiesel said in an interview with GlobalPost that the time to act is now.
“Restitution is absolutely urgent now because it's 65 years after the event, which as I said during the conference, I found scandalous — that it took so long to deal with this problem,” he said. “I hope that now that at least many needy survivors will benefit from it and that all artwork will be returned, and at least, at least that justice should prevail.”
Clarification: The Friedman family changed the spelling of their surname in 1960, dropping a second 'n' at the end.
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