Gideon Taylor is chair of operations of the World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO), which represents world Jewry in pursuing claims for the recovery of Jewish properties seized during the Holocaust in Eastern Europe. We spoke to him by phone from Brussels, where the WJRO this week helped to sponsor a conference at the European parliament to discuss the status of restitution efforts.
Q.: A two-year 1,200 page report released this week by the European Shoah Legacy Institute concluded that a “substantial amount” of property confiscated from European Jews during the Holocaust has never been returned. What’s your reaction?
A.: It shines a light on a dark chapter of European history. The Shoah was not only one of the greatest massacres in human history, it was also one of the greatest thefts. The report will help us articulate clearly what still needs to be done to achieve some form of justice for Holocaust survivors and their heirs. There are about 500,000 Jewish Nazi victims still alive, many of whom live in very difficult conditions. Restituting property to them is both about helping them and ensuring that the history of what happened is told.
What kind of property are we talking about?
Communal property, private property and heirless property. The report highlighted places where there have been significant progress and clearly identified where much remains to be done.
The WJRO has helped to sponsor a conference this week at the European parliament in Brussels to discuss the status of restitution efforts involving the stolen Jewish property. Why was that necessary?
We wanted to have the conference to engage the European Union in the struggle for justice. We secured the support of the president of the European Parliament, who sponsored the conference. In addition, we have been working with members of the European Parliament from many countries and across the different political groupings in order to get widespread support for this campaign.
How has it been going?
We’re seeing broad support and we think it is essential that the countries see that this is an issue of concern to the leadership of Europe.
Some 47 countries endorsed the Terezin Declaration in 2009 in which they pledged to work to restore Nazi-looted property to their rightful owners rather than use legal claims to thwart those efforts. Which ones are not living up to their commitment?
The country that has the greatest amount of property that has not been returned is Poland. We have been pressing the Polish government to pass legislation that would address this issue both for Jews and non-Jews. Drafts of legislation have been introduced over the years but none have been passed.
Have they said they don’t have the money?
Yes, but many countries have found ways to deal with the issue by paying out claims over a long period of time or through government bonds. And there has been some progress. Last year, Romania passed legislation that advanced the return of communal property, and legislation in Serbia provides for the return of heirless property.
Is there any leverage that can be applied to countries that have not abided by their commitment?
Ultimately, it is a moral and political issue and public support is the strongest tool.
Not only has Jewish property not been returned, but it was reported this week that headstones from a desecrated Jewish cemetery in Poland are being used as part of a wall around a Christian cemetery.
One of the important priorities in our negotiations with governments is to press for the preservation of Jewish cemeteries and other sites of Jewish heritage. We met last month with senior Polish government officials to urge them to press Polish municipalities to look after more than 1,000 Jewish cemeteries that exist in Poland today. Many are in very bad condition and at risk of encroachment or even destruction.