(August 28, 2020 / JNS) Cherrie Daniels was tapped last year as the U.S. State Department’s Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues.
Founded in 1999, the Office of the Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues “develops and implements U.S. policy to return Holocaust-era assets to their rightful owners, secure compensation for Nazi-era wrongs, and ensure that the Holocaust is remembered and commemorated appropriately,” according to the State Department website.
Prior to her current role, Daniels served in the U.S. embassy in Belgrade and at the U.S. embassy in Oslo. She also served in the Office of the Vice President as a special adviser for Europe and Russia, and as a Pearson Foreign Affairs Fellow under former Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.).
Last month, Daniels’s office, which is in the State Department’s Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs, released a report about the status of countries over their handling of issuing restitution to Holocaust survivors and their relatives.
Released in accordance with the 2017 Justice for Uncompensated Survivors Today (JUST) Act that was signed into law by U.S. President Donald Trump in May 2018, the report states that “a handful of the countries that endorsed the Terezin Declaration have yet to pass laws that facilitate the restitution of immovable property,” and that “in countries that have adopted such legislation, too many claimants face discrimination based on citizenship and residency or are otherwise unable to benefit due to overly complicated administrative barriers.”
The Terezin Declaration was created in 2009 after a meeting of 47 countries, including the United States, in June that year in the Czechoslovakian town where 33,000 Jews perished at the Theresienstadt ghetto and concentration camp. The member countries signed a declaration stressing the importance of restitution for Holocaust survivors and their heirs.
The report blamed “bureaucratic inertia” for the delay in resolving restitution claims. It calls out Bosnia and Herzegovina, Belarus and Ukraine for not passing laws to enable the restitution of private property; and Poland for not passing laws dealing with restitution of private property confiscated during the Holocaust, making it “the only European Union member state with significant Holocaust-era property issues not to have done so.”
Also in Poland, “approximately half of the 5,500 Jewish communal property claims filed under a 1997 restitution law remain unresolved, and approximately half of the adjudicated claims were rejected.”
Daniels is married with two children.
JNS talked with Daniels by phone on Aug. 18. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Q: Since the release of the JUST Act Report, what has the response been from countries under the Terezin Declaration? Positive or negative?
A: So far, a lot of the reactions are a lot of the governments that endorsed the Terezin Declaration are likely still translating, digesting and absorbing what’s in the report.
Q: Which governments have you heard back from and what have they said?
A: I wouldn’t want to characterize our diplomatic conversations, but I would say some countries issued public statements, like Poland. Some countries, like Israel, have welcomed the report directly to me and my team.
Q: Poland is the only E.U.-member state that has not adopted a national comprehensive private property restitution law. You’ve said that as a sovereign country, this is an issue for Poland to resolve. However, shouldn’t the United States push for Poland to pass such a measure in that your office seeks to lead on the issue of Holocaust-era restitution?
A: There are other E.U. states that don’t have property restitution issues like Ireland. U.S. leadership has been crucial in the decades after the war. I’d point you to U.S. leadership since the 1990s on everything such as the Swiss Bank Settlement. Continued U.S. leadership is crucial, and both the president and secretary of state have made that clear in the social media surrounding the release of the JUST Act report.
Each country that endorsed the Terezin Declaration is a sovereign country and it was a nonbinding declaration where each country really freely undertook commitments to do the right thing and they listed the principles by which they would do the right thing on private property, on the communal or religious property, on heirless property, on moveable property, all the principles are in there and we’re looking for conversations with those governments to see how we can help them.
We hope that in the report, in comparing themselves in all the different chapters, they will find best practices. How a country can do this in a reasonable way that fits within their budget and does justice.
Q: What leverage can America use in pushing for changes from countries like Poland to have laws dealing with Holocaust-era restitution?
A: In the case of Poland, we recognize a victim of Nazi brutality, and then Soviet occupation and Communist domination, etc. You have that intervening period after World War II where they were not able to deal with these issues until they were given their independence.
When it comes to leverage, it’s in Poland’s interests to settle the issue once and for all because, as a practical matter, resolving restitution or compensation for all these property claims would facilitate their own economic development.
Q: Is there an estimated amount of how much public and private restitution is still owed overall worldwide?
A: I’m not aware if there is an overall number. The fact is that some countries don’t have comprehensive private property legislation dealing specifically with the Holocaust issue. In those countries, there’s no record-keeping by religion of who has seen their property back and who hasn’t.
Q: Will there ever be a time when all Holocaust-era restitution cases will be resolved? Or do you see this as an infinite issue?
A: Certainly, the secretary of state has been on record in the foreword to the JUST Act report on the issue that the need for action is urgent with Holocaust survivors aging, and having domestic health and welfare needs, so that’s the nature of the focus that I have. Whether every country will do everything is one question. Another is what can they do now, and that’s where I have my focus.
Q: Do you see the issue of providing restitution to Holocaust survivors and their relatives as a matter to fix the past or as part of the ongoing fight against anti-Semitism?
A: We see finding a delayed measure of justice for Holocaust survivors and their heirs as a moral obligation that countries enter freely into in endorsing the Terezin Declaration. On the issue of anti-Semitism, our report doesn’t cover that because the United States reports on that through the International Religious Freedom Report and through the Human Rights Report, but in the JUST Act report we do address how restitution for Holocaust survivors and their heirs is connected to combating anti-Semitism.
Q: In comparison to the previous roles you’ve held inside government, has your current role been your greatest challenge? Besides the job requirements, how does it compare to your previous jobs?
A: It’s been very satisfying and rewarding work. The small team that I’ve assembled are very proud of what they were able to do. We feel very compelled to answer the questions in the nature of our report, but also the diplomatic conversations with countries named and not named in the report every day. I’ve had a lot of challenges and have done a lot of interesting jobs, and I have to say I was proud of being in Serbia when that country adopted groundbreaking heirless property legislation in February 2016. Challenges are the nature of the game of the Foreign Service, and I relish all of them and feel that this is very rewarding work.
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