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UK hosts emergency meeting on millions of unclaimed Holocaust property stolen from Jews, others

A British envoy warns that it will “soon be too late” to reunite victims with their belongings.

An international conference of Holocaust representatives meets in London to discuss art and other valuables stolen by the Nazis during World War II on March 28, 2023. Credit: UK Department for Levelling Up, Housing & Communities.
An international conference of Holocaust representatives meets in London to discuss art and other valuables stolen by the Nazis during World War II on March 28, 2023. Credit: UK Department for Levelling Up, Housing & Communities.

Victims and relatives have yet to claim millions of belongings that Nazi authorities stole from Jews and others during the Holocaust, a British official said on March 28 during an international conference of Holocaust representatives in London.

Eric Pickles, the United Kingdom government’s special envoy for post-Holocaust issues, complained that international auctioneers are profiting from stolen artwork and other valuable artifacts as survivors who can identify their previous possessions dwindle.

“We need to get a grip on this in the next five years, or it will be too late,” he warned.

The Conservative parliamentarian spoke at the U.K. Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office during the inaugural meeting on Holocaust-era property restitution. Pickles planned the event with Mark Weitzman, chief operating officer of the World Jewish Restitution Organization, a global body that represents world Jewry pursuing claims for recovery of Jewish properties in Europe outside of Germany and Austria.

More than 20 representatives from more than 10 countries attended, including Ellen Germain, U.S. special envoy for Holocaust issues; Croatian Ambassador to London Igor Pokaz; and Wesley Fisher, director of research at the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany.

Pickles told those assembled that some 5 million items of Jewish property remain unclaimed by owners or their surviving relations.

“The meeting was an important gathering of Holocaust envoys to discuss restitution and compensation, and how to encourage countries in Eastern and Central Europe that have not yet done so to take action to address the injustices of the past,” said Germain. “This is a powerful opportunity to do something right, something meaningful.”

Barnabas Balint, who researches Holocaust history at the University of Oxford, told JNS that the “vast amount” of property stolen from Jews during the Holocaust that is now being held in Europe “exposes histories of collaboration and reminds us that restitution is a global effort.”

“The first-ever international gathering of Holocaust envoys to discuss restitution sends a strong signal about the importance of this work and will hopefully build momentum for a larger international discussion and progress on this issue,” he said.

‘It’s about justice’

At a media briefing in Westminster following the conference, Yossef Levy, Israel’s special envoy for Holocaust-era assets, made an impassioned plea. “It’s not about property. It’s not about money. It’s not about art,” he said. “It’s about justice, which is late, but not too late—justice for the Holocaust survivors and justice for the millions of Jews who did not survive the Holocaust.”

It was also raised during the March 28 meeting that collaborative efforts on restitution with Moscow have been on hold since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022; Hungary and Poland have also been reluctant to push to return property.

“This is a powerful opportunity to do something right, something meaningful.”

Weitzman, the co-organizer, said there have been success stories, including in Lithuania and Latvia, amid the difficult processes. “Moldova is taking its first real concrete steps,” he said, although the former Soviet republic “still has a lot to do.”

Pickles said Croatia is “enthusiastic” about improving its effort.

Uncovering the history of stolen Jewish property is often uncomfortable for many countries because it often “challenges their national narrative,” said Weitzman.

After delivering a brief address at the meeting, James Cleverly, British foreign secretary, tweeted his thanks to Pickles for “convening this important meeting on Holocaust restitution” and said his work is “greatly appreciated.”

Representatives from the United States, Israel, France, Germany, Austria, Canada, Croatia, the Netherlands and Romania have said they will schedule a future event to work on property restitution.

In 2009, the United Kingdom and 46 other countries signed the Terezin Declaration on Holocaust Era Assets and Related Issues, a non-legally binding document that affirms “the importance of recovering communal and religious immovable property in reviving and enhancing Jewish life, ensuring its future, assisting the welfare needs of Holocaust survivors, and fostering the preservation of Jewish cultural heritage.”

The 1998 Washington Conference Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art, endorsed by 44 countries, established principles concerning the restitution of art confiscated by the Nazis that were not subsequently restituted, including principles for countries to search provenance to identify stolen art and to publicize the information.

A 2007 study found that only one-fifth of the property that Nazis removed from Jews has been returned, with a cache worth $115 to $175 billion (in 2005 prices) remaining unclaimed.

“The objects and property of Europe’s Jewish communities are a powerful reminder of the lives lost during the Holocaust,” said Balint. “Seemingly everyday items now tell a history of persecution and can take on new meanings for victims’ families when they are some of the few surviving traces of their lives.”

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