From the Organizing Seminar of June 30, 1998
Dealing with the Last Vestiges of the Second World War
Research, Remembrance, and Education
Director, Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets
Delivered at the Organizing Seminar for the Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets
June 30, 1998
I am very pleased to welcome you back this afternoon to continue our international efforts to investigate the history of Holocaust-era assets and to act to help right the terrible wrongs of the twentieth century.
We have two reasons for hosting the Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets with the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. We wish to help address Nazi era injustices, particularly for survivors and we wish to work with the international community of sovereign nations to avoid new conflicts as well as resolve the old.
We know this enterprise will succeed only with your active engagement and I am encouraged that so many countries are represented here today. The objective of the Washington Conference is to focus attention and to advance on-going action on Nazi-looted assets other than gold, especially artwork and insurance. We will also pursue activities on further research, remembrance, and education.
Although the Conference will not be a forum for governmental decision making, we plan to use its sessions – and the consultations preparing for them – to work with a wide range of governments and NGOs to help shape principles and processes for addressing injustices in these categories of Nazi-looted assets. We are also seeking ways to share the lessons we have learned about the Holocaust and its aftermath with successor generations.
We hope that the combined efforts of our governments, our NGOs and the public give fresh impetus to initiatives already underway in many countries, particularly in national historical commissions and among archivists, and to help us come to terms with the events of this century.
The bottom line of our effort is historical honesty, memory, and openness. We recognize that it is painful for any country to confront historical events that reopen old wounds or raise new questions that affect national identity or international reputation. We know, too, that the horrors of the Holocaust and the fate of its victims’ assets inescapably touch on sensitive memories. We hope, as Under Secretary Eizenstat said last night, that we can join together in this noble cause.
The Organizing Conference – Consulting on the Washington Conference
We consider this project a joint international undertaking. Under Secretary Eizenstat and Miles Lerman, Chairman of the US Holocaust Memorial Council have demonstrated great leadership in calling for this international conference.
Our Conference working groups are charged with the responsibility to bring together foreign, state and local governments, American NGOs, businesses, national historical commissions and others to monitor and manage issues as we create an international forum for encouraging action to redress injustices of the Holocaust era.
Our initial goals for the Washington Conference are:
- Enabling historians and other experts to share results of their research on Nazi-looted gold, art, insurance, and other assets
- Reaffirming international commitments on archival openness for relevant research on this period
- Closing out the Tripartite Gold Commission and implementing the Nazi Persecutee Fund
- Facilitating cooperation among government insurance regulators, NGOs, and insurance companies to help resolve Holocaust era insurance claims
- Encouraging international cooperation among similar non-governmental groups on principles and processes to address art provenance research issues of Nazi-looted art restitution, and the establishment of an international looted-art registry
- Promoting remembrance, education, and research on the Holocaust era
This "organizing seminar" at the State Department with 38 countries and a number of NGOs will review our goals and share perspectives on our aims.
We are very pleased that the morning session on gold could demonstrate the outstanding international cooperation and progress being made to help bring a close to the work of the Tripartite Gold Commission and begin the work of the Nazi Persecutee Fund.
This afternoon we will review the November Conference agenda on art, insurance, and other assets as well as Holocaust education.
Art and insurance will be treated with the greatest prominence, but other assets have equal merit and will receive increasing attention as international research moves forward.
I would like to outline briefly our objectives in art and insurance, their significance for our discussion and shortly turn to the experts for their substantive comments.
We are also searching for a conference chairman for the Washington Conference. We hope to find an eminent person who can bring to task the same integrity and probity displayed by the skillful Lord McKay at the London Conference. We hope to be able to announce our choice by early fall.
Artwork that was confiscated by the Nazis or that changed hands as a result of forced sales touched a sensitive and emotional cultural nerve. Art is a vital part of each nation’s heritage and as such carries a special significance beyond its value as an asset. The United States recognized early in the Second World War that art needed special protection from the ravages of the war. In the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives units in the US Forces that collected art in the chaos of the end of the Second World War, we created a special responsibility for the United States for the return of art stolen by the Nazi regime.
The United States and other countries took steps in the aftermath of the war to find original owners of Nazi-confiscated art. Now we are seeking justice for Holocaust survivors and their heirs to finish that work. We are also aware of the implications unclear provenance has on museums and the international art market. We will hear more about the US role later this afternoon from our distinguished guests and look forward to your questions.
We have sought to be as inclusive as possible in preparing for this seminar and for the Washington Conference. We met with claimants, museums, art dealers, auction houses, researchers, historians, non-governmental organizations in the US and abroad, and governments to open dialogue and to seek areas of congruence on the resolution of lost and stolen art from the Nazi regime.
In the US we recently held a roundtable discussion with many of these players to foster understanding, interaction, agreement and cooperation on these Holocaust era art questions. In this process we sought principles on the identification of Nazi confiscated art and on processes that will help bring positive results for victims, museums, collectors, and the international art market.
Now with this organizing seminar, we hope to formally enlist your views and help set the agenda for the Washington Conference in November.
We are also here today to identify and to delineate the issues regarding Holocaust-era insurance claims. There are many facets to examine beginning with some historical facts. There is new scholarly work underway on the insurance industry during the Nazi period and we hope to share the results of that work at our fall conference. Unanswered questions concerning the confiscation of insurance policies and assets during the Holocaust era are being researched. Some governments dealt with claims after the war with indemnification and compensation programs. Other governments nationalized assets and liabilities without compensating for Nazi confiscation.
Most important is the ongoing effort today among insurance regulators, NGOs and the insurers to find justice for survivors whose policies were confiscated. We are engaged with many of these key actors and are very pleased to have their representatives with us here today and look forward to their comments.
We will also open a discussion this afternoon on other Nazi-confiscated assets, including gems and jewelry, books and manuscripts, and communal property in our third session, presented by Stanley Turesky, the Director of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum’s working group on the Washington Conference.
Research, Remembrance, and Education
Finally, we would like to conclude with a session on holocaust education. Many countries, such as Israel, Germany, and the Netherlands, for example, have made long-term efforts to include the Holocaust as an integral part of their education Curriculum. There are new, exciting initiatives now appearing and we will hear more about some of them this afternoon from the Swedes and the United States. The Swedish Prime Minister has launched the "Living History" initiative to deepen knowledge about the Holocausts in schools and among the Swedish public. The Vatican, too, has given guidance to the Catholic Church on Holocaust education in its document We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah. The Conference will also be a catalyst for education on this century’s unspeakable tragedy – a major fact of the twentieth century, and one that concerns us today.
Let me conclude with one thought: history matters. If it is to be trusted, it must be based on the facts, however painful. We have recently seen the consequences for our friends and for ourselves of incomplete historical understanding of Nazi era crimes. The challenge for us is to come together to continue the quest for historical understanding and to act on what we learn. We must remain engaged in seeking redress today for the injustices of the ghastly legacy left by the Holocaust. Consequently, the United States is committed to hosting with the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, the international Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets to help us all examine asset issues of the Holocaust era. We thank you for participating today and for helping frame this important international debate. I wish us a productive afternoon and look forward to working with you all during the upcoming months.