I am honored to have been asked to address the Claims Conference Board of Directors. Under Secretary Nick Burns, who addressed your meeting last year, sends his best regards. I would like to read a statement that Under Secretary Burns asked me to pass on to you:
"The U.S. government remains committed to the task of assisting Holocaust survivors, and the descendants of those who did not survive, to attain a measure of justice. We know there is more work to be done. Our Embassies abroad will continue to work alongside the Claims Conference and other NGOs to get transparent and equitable private and communal property restitution laws adopted and implemented. Best wishes for a successful conference."
I am here representing the State Department to demonstrate the continued U.S. Government commitment to working with the Claims Conference for compensation and restitution for victims of the Holocaust.
For the past three years, I have worked closely with the Claims Conference. We at the State Department are very aware of your distinguished history of effectively assisting Holocaust survivors. This past year has been no exception. I would like to congratulate the Claims Conference – Rabbi Singer, Gideon Taylor, Roman Kent, Saul Kagan and everyone involved in its recent successes in acquiring additional compensation and social service funding to benefit more Jewish victims of Nazism. As part of these latest negotiations with Germany, the Claims Conference obtained significant additional funding for in-home social services for aging survivors whose health needs are becoming increasingly urgent. The State Department understands this priority and we fully support your efforts on behalf of the Holocaust survivors.
The United States Government also strongly supports efforts to restitute to their rightful owners property that was confiscated by the Nazis between 1933-45, and by the subsequent communist governments of central and eastern Europe.
We are fully committed to encouraging countries to enact restitution laws and to implement restitution programs based on those laws to return both communal property owned by religious and community organizations, and private property owned by individuals and corporate entities. These laws should be non-discriminatory, transparent, and uniformly enforced throughout a country.
A successful property restitution program is a reliable measure of how effective the rule of law is in a democratic country and is also of crucial importance to a market economy. A commitment to these values is central to membership in the European Union or NATO, or other Western institutions.
However, as you know, property restitution is complicated and controversial. Changing the ownership and use of buildings and land from one party or purpose to another can cause major disruptions for economically challenged countries. We recognize that in rem property restitution may not be possible in all cases. Compensation in the form of monetary payment is the obvious alternative.
While there is no single system of property restitution laws and procedures that can be applied to all countries, our goal is to encourage those countries that do have existing laws and claims processes to administer them in a transparent, prompt and non-discriminatory manner and to push those countries that have not yet adopted laws to do so quickly, such as Poland in the case of private property.
By and large, the United States has been encouraged with the progress that
many countries have made on this difficult, complex and controversial issue.
Still, there is a great deal of work to be done in this area in Poland, Croatia, and Romania, and elsewhere in Europe where the footprint of Nazi tyranny and the Holocaust resulted in the loss of assets for Jewish families and communities.
But this issue is not about property alone, rather it goes directly to the heart of the mission of the Claims Conference and the important work that we in the State Department support – a measure of justice for survivors that will help them with medical costs and other needs in their golden years or in the case of the six million victims of the Holocaust, a measure of justice for their families. Religious property also represents an important source of financial assistance to small Jewish communities throughout Central Europe seeking to grow and to increase their contribution to the culture and young democracies where they live.
One of the major results of the 1998 Washington Conference on Holocaust Era Assets was the acceptance by consensus of the Washington Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art. This broadly-worded single page of suggestions on how to deal with artworks that changed ownership during the 1933-1945 period has gained wide acceptance in the art world. This, despite the fact that they are non-binding and include no enforcement mechanism. What the Principles offer is a common sense, low-key approach to a complex subject that brims with emotion. Properly applied, these principles can result in win-win solutions, such as the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and the Chicago Art Institute were able to negotiate in separate cases a few years ago. (more details of this example or another one) When ignored, lengthy and costly legal proceedings can ensue, as we all saw in the Altmann case.
We are aware that the Claims Conference has an active art restitution program underway and applaud the ambitious research project initiated under this program. We look forward to cooperating with the Claims Conference on this effort.
Along with property restitution, there are other unresolved issues of the Holocaust that continue to merit our attention and action. For almost ten years, the State Department and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum have been actively and persistently working to open up the largest Holocaust-era archive that has remained closed to the public and to researchers since the end of the war. Finally our efforts succeeded and an agreement was reached in May to change the access rules to the International Tracing Service (ITS) archives located at Bad Arolsen, Germany. In fact, a letter from Rabbi Singer and Gideon Taylor to the German Minister of the Interior was very helpful in encouraging a positive result from our negotiations. This is also a good example of how the State Department works with an important NGO like the Claims Conference to achieve results that will benefit thousands of Holocaust survivors and their families.
The International Tracing Service archives comprise 30 million pages of WWII and post-war concentration, labor and displaced persons camp records. Seventeen million names appear in these archives. The ITS was established to aid in family reunification but its records are now used to substantiate benefit claims by Holocaust survivors and their heirs. In addition to the United States, the Commission is comprised of Belgium, France, Germany, Greece, Israel, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Poland, and the United Kingdom. Germany is legally bound to fund the ITS.
For at least the past decade, Holocaust researchers have sought access to the ITS archive, but the governing Bonn Accords did not provide for such usage. The ITS has served important goals of tracing the whereabouts of families divided and in that regard had success in reuniting loved ones. The records also assisted in justifying claims under the German forced labor and slave labor agreement in which the Claims Conference was so critically involved from the beginning.
At its May 2006 meeting in Luxembourg, the International Commission adopted amendments to the Bonn Accords to permit each Commission member to receive a digitized copy of the great bulk of the Bad Arolsen archive. Commission member states – including the U.S. -- would be able to make that copy available, under their respective national privacy laws, to researchers. The amendments also provide for researchers to have direct access to the archives in Bad Arolsen.
The next steps are the formal signature of the amendments, scheduled for late July, and ratification by each country in accordance with its own internal procedures. The U.S. Government is urging other ITS members to ratify the ITS amendments promptly so the archives can be opened at the earliest possible date. These archives are an invaluable important historical database and will assist many Holocaust survivors and their families in seeking answers regarding the fate of their loved ones.
More broadly, making such information available to the public is important to all democratic countries, as part of our common effort to ensure that the events of the Holocaust are never repeated. By promoting research and education about the horrors of the Holocaust, we hope future generations can learn from past indifference and horrendous mistakes. However, examining the past is not enough.
Radical elements of society that embrace messages of hate and discrimination are on the rise and have led to a resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe and elsewhere. We are working hard to counter this resurgence. While Jewish communities in Europe have lived under the threat of anti-Semitism for centuries, there has been a worrisome increase in incidents in the past few years. For example, the horrific kidnapping, torturing and killing of the young Frenchman Ilan Halimi in February last year shocked us all, but reminded us that such vile acts – though unimaginable -- are not impossible.
Then more recently on May 29, Poland’s Chief Rabbi, Michael Schudrich was attacked on a street in Warsaw. Punched in the chest and doused with what appeared to be pepper spray, his young attacker yelled "Poland for Poles" - an old anti-Semitic slogan implying Jews are unwelcome in Poland. I note that the Polish Government was quick to respond and condemn this horrible act. However, this attack and so many other similar incidents are signs that the hatred that caused the Holocaust still lingers, and that these reprehensible acts cannot be ignored. We must persevere in highlighting and eliminating the dangerous attitudes against the Jewish people that are far too prevalent in various countries and communities.
I am pleased to note that on May 22 Secretary Rice swore-in Gregg Rickman as the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat anti-Semitism. His appointment is a clear message that the President and Secretary are committed to fighting anti-Semitism worldwide. Dr. Rickman will serve as the key Departmental strategist and focal point in the design, development, and implementation of policies and projects to support international efforts addressing anti-Semitism. My current office will remain involved in combating anti-Semitism in Europe. Many of you know Dr. Rickman from his work with Senator D’Amato and from the U.S. Congress on Holocaust era restitution agreements.
As part of the United States Government’s effort to combat anti-Semitism, we partner with foreign governments and institutions to prevent such incidents. In this light, the U.S. is proud to have been one of the sponsors of a November 2005 United Nations General Assembly resolution designating January 27 as an annual day of Holocaust remembrance. Part of the UN resolution calls for the UN to develop an outreach program on Holocaust remembrance and education in concert with civil societies and Member States working with the UN Under Secretary General for Communications and Public Information. Organizations closely associated with the Claims Conference were instrumental in preparing and advocating on behalf of these resolutions.
In addition to working with the UN, the United States also continues to fortify its partnership with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The OSCE, with its 55 participating States, is dedicated to combating all forms of racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism and discrimination. It does this through its Warsaw-based Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR).
The U.S. is also a founding and very active member of the International Holocaust Education Task Force, which consists of representatives of government, as well as non-governmental organizations. Its purpose is to place political and social leaders’ support behind the need for Holocaust education, remembrance, and research both nationally and internationally. The Task Force currently has twenty-four member countries all of which must be dedicated to the implementation of national policies and programs in support of Holocaust education, remembrance, and research. To date, over a hundred projects have been funded, including scores of training courses on the Holocaust for high school teachers in Eastern Europe.
Sixty one years have passed since the Holocaust but it remains essential for us to educate future generations -- our future leaders -- about the atrocities that occurred. Where Anti-Semitism and other forms of ethnic and religious intolerance are not confronted, democracy cannot take root and flourish. We will continue to work with our international partners to fight anti-Semitism. In partnership with the world community, we must redouble our efforts to foster respect, mutual understanding, and compassion for all people.
A final note – I am concluding my three years as Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues and moving to a new assignment in the State Department. My successor is Christian Kennedy, a career Senior Foreign Officer, who brings a lot of talent and experience to the position. Our office of Holocaust Issues includes experienced professionals who will continue to work closely with the Claims Conference on the unresolved issues of the Holocaust. This assures the State Department’s continuing commitment to the important issues of property restitution, bringing a "measure of justice" to Holocaust survivors and promoting Holocaust education.