Hundreds of thousands of Holocaust survivors living in poverty, international conference is told
(Wednesday 26 April – Brussels, Belgium) European Parliament President Antonio Tajani today endorsed the return of property and possessions seized from Jewish communities and victims during the Holocaust, saying it was a “fundamental element to restore justice after the Holocaust.”
Declaring that restitution across Europe was still challenged by legal and technical problems, leaving victims without their property, President Tajani said: “Restitution, together with remembrance and reconciliation, is a fundamental element to restore justice after the Holocaust.”
“The European Parliament has called on the Commission to develop common principles on restitution. Member States authorities should assist victims and their families during the complex legal proceedings. Some countries have done a lot and have even developed best practices. Others should do more.”
President Tajani spoke as he officially opened an international conference, Unfinished Justice: Restitution and Remembrance, which examined the current state of post-Holocaust restitution in Europe. During the conference, members of the European Parliament also called on the European Commission and all member states to each appoint Special Envoys for Holocaust Related Issues, including restitution, to accelerate activities aimed at securing justice for victims.
Mr Tajani told the conference, which included Holocaust victims fighting for justice: “I will support you, not only today, but every day.” Expressing concerns that Jewish people in Europe were being attacked and faced the “permanent danger of antisemitism,” he added: “The future of European Jews is in Europe and Europe will not be Europe without Jews. Our European identity is based on our Judeo-Christian roots and we should never forget it, because forgetting our past means losing orientation for our future.”
Afterwards, Gideon Taylor, Chair of Operations for the World Jewish Restitution Organisation, praised Tajani’s announcement as a “significant step toward helping Holocaust survivors achieve justice regarding confiscated property.”
He added: “The support of the European Parliament sends a strong signal about the importance of fulfilling the pledges countries made under the Terezin Declaration. Countries have a moral obligation to ensure that workable property restitution laws are put in place and we hope that they will respond by re-affirming their commitment to providing justice for the remaining survivors, their families and Jewish communities as a matter of urgency.”
Former Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Natan Sharansky also attended the conference. Speaking on behalf of the State of Israel, he said: “It is high time that all signatories to the Terezin Declaration take full responsibility to implement their commitments. This is not only an issue for individual states, it is a multilateral European concern.”
President Tajani’s support was welcomed by Gunnar Hökmark MEP and Chair of the European Alliance for Holocaust Survivors: “On behalf of the EAHS, we sincerely welcome the support of President Tajani, and are heartened by the recognition that has been shown towards the crucial issue of restitution. We urge the European Parliament to continue to do everything possible to give survivors and their families the peace and dignity they deserve, and help them secure what is rightly theirs.”
Charles Goerens MEP and Co-Chair of the European Alliance for Holocaust Survivors bureau, supported moves for the EU to appoint a special envoy.
He said: “Europe cannot afford any further delay in ensuring that victims of the Holocaust are properly cared for, and I urge my colleagues to make the issue of restitution a priority. Designating a special envoy provides the recognition that these unresolved issues deserve, and will strengthen the response of the Parliament to this ongoing tragedy.”
Monika Flašíková-Beňová MEP and Co-Chair of the European Alliance for Holocaust Survivors bureau said: “The inherent function of democracy is a strong adherence to fundamental rights and dignity of all people regardless of their ethnic or social background or religious conviction. Its aim must be to fight the injustice imposed on the victims and their families as a result of the Holocaust. Therefore, it is critical that the Member states are encouraged to implement the Terezin Declaration and that the fight for justice is unwavering and unconditional.”
“Committing to a substantial, broad and coordinated programme of restitution,” said Holocaust survivor Ben Helfgott, “goes some way to recognising the suffering, anguish and torment that occurred directly to those Jews present at the time, and the damage it caused for generations afterwards. There is a moral obligation to the survivors and the dead, to memory and identity, the link of families to their roots and repairing a historic injustice.”
During the conference, hosted by the European Parliament, MEPs were told that some member states and other countries were failing to fulfil their obligations under the 2009 Terezin Declaration to return property stolen from Jewish victims during the Holocaust to their rightful owners, heirs and to Jewish communities. A dozen Eastern European states were singled out for not enacting special heirless property laws, relating to property and land that had largely reverted to the state after whole families were wiped out, and Poland was identified as the only EU member that has failed to enact a workable claims process for stolen property.
Meanwhile, of the remaining 500,000 survivors alive today, up to half live in poverty, according to the WJRO.
Following the conference, organisers urged the European Union to agree “to provide technical advice and support to assist and monitor various restitution processes in Member States and to encourage the implementation of the Terezin Declaration.”
MEPs were also asked to formally declare their ‘enduring commitment to the provision of adequate and immediate social welfare support for Holocaust survivors, the demarcation, protection and preservation of Jewish cemeteries, mass graves and other burial sites, the preservation of Jewish heritage sites, and the promotion of Holocaust education, research and remembrance.”
The conference was organized by the European Alliance for Holocaust Survivors, a coalition of Members of the European Parliament committed to issues impacting Holocaust Survivors, the World Jewish Restitution Organization, and the European Shoah Legacy Institute, together with the European Jewish Congress and B’nai B’rith International. Also supporting the conference are the Permanent Missions of the State of Israel, the Czech Republic, and the United Kingdom to the European Union and their respective Ministries of Foreign Affairs.