Wiesenthal Centre Statement to "Holocaust Era Assets Conference" in Prague

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Wiesenthal Centre Statement to "Holocaust Era Assets Conference" in Prague

Prague, 29 June 2009

The Simon Wiesenthal Centre's Director for International Relations, Dr.
Shimon Samuels, today presented this statement to the "Holocaust Era
Assets Conference" in Prague, focussing on the Centre's concerns
regarding France and Ireland. The conference participants represented 49
governments and 152 non-governmental organizations.

"Mr Chairman,

Winston Churchill declared that 'in wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.'

The Simon Wiesenthal Centre congratulates the Czech Republic on concluding its European Presidency by convening this mission for transparency.

The decade since the Washington Conference on Holocaust Restitution has been cathartic in smashing national myths and entrenched collective memories. The opening of archives has been painful for both combatant nations and neutrals in World War II.

I briefly address two issues of concern to our Centre that may have been ameliorated by encounters at the conference.

The Wiesenthal Centre was the principal actor, researcher and interface for claimants in France since the United States class action suits and throughout the claims process of the CIVS (French State Commission for the Indemnification of Victims of the Shoah). We are proud to have identified and shepherded most of the 8,800 successful bank claims. We
will continue to monitor the more than 1,500 registered claims waiting to be heard, as also the approximately 50 new submissions arriving every month.

We are still urging the publication of the named list of 86,000, spoliated bank account holders, withheld under privacy laws, and of the heirs to known names and companies; property owners in France but resident in East-Central Europe; Middle Eastern holders of French accounts; properties of Yiddish Landsmannschaften in France and of Yiddish publishing houses and libraries.

Here, in Prague rather than in Paris, we discussed with the CIVS, the complex definitions of 'rightful heirs', and 'reserved shares' of compensation withheld on behalf of putative relatives. We submit that, at the eventual closure of the CIVS, these 'reserved shares' be distributed among known claimants or to appropriate Jewish organizations.

CIVS hearings can be highly inquisitorial and stressful to the claimant. Our presence often enhances equitable treatment.

Our Centre has recently acquired ERR/ Dienststelle Westen inventory lists of apartment looting in northern France. These identify internees in Drancy who were eventually deported. We discussed with the CIVS these documents as the basis for financial and material claims for household contents despoiled after their occupants were interned or deported.

The second issue relates to the pedagogical value of archival transparency among World War II neutrals, an occasion sometimes resulting in a negative retrenchment around myths and even denial.

I refer to our Centre's campaign, over the last five years, to determine the truth surrounding the founders of the Hunt Museum in Ireland.

We requested the President of Ireland to suspend her prestigious Museum Award, pending an independent investigation into the alleged associations of the late John and Gertrude Hunt with Nazi circles and dealers in looted art.

This resulted in an admirable provenance enquiry by the Museum's director, but the founders' activities were totally ignored by a three-year government appointed enquiry.

Dr. Lynn Nicholas, engaged by the Irish authorities to respond to our critique, and who is a speaker at this conference, vindicated us in her Final Report in August 2007:
'An examination of the Hunt Museum Collection was certainly justified both by its lack of provenance records and by the discovery of the Hunts' relationship with a dealer who is known to have trafficked in confiscated art.'

In January 2009, we produced a 165-page Shadow Report on this controversy (made available to Conference participants), that points to a network of ties with named Nazi agents and looted art merchants.

We also called for access to the relevant archives, in accordance with Paragraph 2 of the Experts Conclusions of the Working Group on Looted Art of this Conference (which is consonant with the Second Principle of the 1998 Washington Conference):
'Access to archives and documentation should be unhindered for all parties. Governments should encourage private institutions and individuals ... to also provide access to their records...'

I am happy to report that, here in Prague and not in Dublin, talks with the Irish delegation discussed an invitation to a Wiesenthal Centre researcher to access relevant archives, and a proposal for a proactive search for heirs through notices to the principal Jewish and restitution websites.

To conclude with a French connection:

The last train of looted art from Paris to Germany was stopped by the resistance on 15 August 1944 at the suburb of Rosny-sous-Bois. The last train of deportees left Drancy for Auschwitz on the same date and was never stopped.

'Ars longa, vita brevis' - 'Art is eternal, life is short.'

May this Prague conference result in a reversal of these diabolical priorities and, also, lead to an appreciation of the pedagogical opportunities raised here, for the young generation to better understand the moral dilemmas they invoke.

Thank you, Mr Chairman."

For further information, please contact Shimon Samuels at +33.609.77.01.58.