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Holocaust Restitution: Summary of the Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets

(November 24, 1999)

On November 30-December 3, 1998, the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum co-hosted the Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets.  Delegations from forty-four governments and thirteen non-governmental organizations participated.  The conference addressed various issues related to the confiscation of assets by the Nazis and others during the Holocaust.  The principal issues of the conference were looted art, insurance claims, communal property, and archives and books.  The conference also examined the role of historical commissions and Holocaust education, remembrance, and research.  Each of the main topics was addressed in a plenary session.  These topics were then discussed in greater detail in a series of "break-out" sessions.  The State Department has published the full proceedings of the conference.1

The opening ceremonies of the Washington Conference, on November 30, 1998,  featured addresses by co-hosts Miles Lerman (Chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council) and Stuart E. Eizenstat (Under-Secretary of State), Conference Chairman Abner J. Mikva, and Nobel Peace Laureate Elie Wiesel.  The opening plenary session on December 1 was highlighted by an address by Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, who set the tone for the conference by calling on participants to "chart a course for finishing the job of returning or providing compensation for stolen Holocaust assets to survivors and the families of Holocaust victims."  This session also included a summary of the work of the recently concluded Tripartite Gold Commission (TGC) and of the International Fund for Needy Victims of Nazi Persecution, established in 1997 by the TGC.  William J. McDonough, President of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, which administers the Fund, noted that the approximately $60 million in the Fund at that time exceeded the amount of claims that had been submitted.

On December 1, there were two plenary sessions.  The first, on Holocaust-era insurance claims, chaired by Ambassador Lyndon Olson2, featured presentations by representatives of the  U.S. National Association of Insurance Commissioners and the Allianz AG insurance company of Germany.  The plenary session on Nazi-confiscated art was chaired by Rep. James A. Leach, Chairman of the House Committee on Banking and Financial Services.  It featured presentations by scholars, museum officials, and several European government officials.   On December 2, a third plenary session combined separate overviews of two topics: Nazi-confiscated communal property, and archives, books, and historical commissions.  The session on communal property was chaired by Representative Benjamin A. Gilman, Chairman of the House International Relations Committee.  It featured presentations by Under-Secretary of State Eizenstat, representatives of major Jewish organizations, and an official of the Hungarian Foreign Ministry.  The session on archives, books, and historical commissions featured presentations by historians and archivists.

On December 2, there were detailed "break-out" sessions that ran concurrently on the main topics of each plenary session.  Reps. Gilman and Leach chaired the break-out sessions on communal property and art, respectively.  There was an additional  break-out session on Holocaust education, remembrance, and research, presided over mainly by officials from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Commission and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

At the concluding plenary session on December 3, Under-Secretary Eizenstat and Conference Chairman Mikva summarized the work of the Conference, as follows: 

  • The Conference made significant progress in developing specific principles and processes for achieving just and equitable solutions to some complex Holocaust asset issues, such as confiscated art, insurance, and communal property.  These were recognized, however, as areas of general consensus, not formal agreements or binding commitments.

  • The Conference achieved a substantial degree of consensus on a set of principles dealing with looted art.  These principles include encouraging research into the provenance and identification of art, calling for these findings to be publicized, urging the establishment of a central computerized registry linking all Holocaust-era art-loss databases, and encouraging alternative dispute-resolution strategies.

  • Regarding insurance issues, many delegations supported the recently created International Commission3 as the best mechanism for adjudicating claims.  The Conference sponsors urged those seeking compensation for insurance claims through litigation and legislation to merge their efforts with those of the International Commission.

  • There was a good deal of discussion and debate, but less consensus, regarding restitution of communal property, especially in the post-communist states of Central and Eastern Europe.  The Conference sponsors noted that while most countries in that region acknowledge an obligation to return confiscated communal property, some show a limited commitment to act at this time.  The United States proposed some general principles, urging governments to: return secular as well as religious communal property; ensure that restitution policies adopted at the national level are implemented regionally and locally; make the legal procedures for filing claims clear and straightforward; and above all, to accelerate the process of restitution of communal property.  Recognizing the need to take into account the legitimate interests of current occupants of claimed property and the economic exigency of many of the states in the region, the Conference sponsors suggested the establishment of foundations to assist local communities and governments deal with communal property claims, research, legal counsel, and restitution costs.

  • The Conference sponsors noted that although many countries have made their Holocaust-related archives open and accessible, some countries' archives are accessible only on a limited basis, while others remain closed.  The work of the seventeen Holocaust-related national historical commissions was strongly commended, as was the Swedish delegation's announcement of its government's intention to convene an international conference on Holocaust education.

*Prepared by Stuart D. Goldman, Specialist in Russian Affairs, Foreign Affairs, Defense, and Trade Division.

1Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets, November 30-December 3, 1999, Proceedings.  Edited by J.D. Bindenagel, Conference Director, Department of State. U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C., 1999.  This 1,146 page volume (which is also available on cd-rom) includes: the text of formal statements made by presenters, delegation statements submitted during or after the conference, position papers provided by delegations as part of the official record, interventions from the floor that were submitted in writing for purposes of publication, and other related documents.

2U.S. Ambassador to Sweden and former Texas Insurance Commissioner.

3The Commission, created in October 1998, includes members drawn from U.S. and European insurance regulators and the World Jewish Congress.  Former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger is the Commission chairman.

Sources: Congressional Research Service of the Library of Congress for the U.S. House International Relations Committee.