From the Organizing Seminar of June 30, 1998
Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets
Organizing Seminar, June 30, 1998
Under Secretary Eizenstat
Ladies and Gentlemen, I am very happy to welcome you this morning to the Department of State, which, along with the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, has the honor of hosting the Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets later this year. I am delighted that all your Governments and a number of other organizations have accepted the US Government’s invitation to come together to continue the international community’s efforts to complete the great unfinished business of the twentieth century – the terrible legacy of the Holocaust. I want to thank you all for coming today to participate in this Organizing Seminar for the Washington Conference, and I want to thank the Museum again for hosting last night’s wonderful reception.
It is dispiriting that for nearly half a century, the fate of Holocaust-era assets remained largely obscured. At the same time, it is inspiring that over the last several years, after the Cold War, and with the end of this century approaching, these issues have come to command the world’s attention and touch the conscience of humanity, there is no doubt that this is a painful undertaking: it is not easy for any country to confront periods or issues in its recent history that reopen old wounds. But I believe that this can be a healing process, which can strengthen each of our countries and bring this century to a close on a high note of justice.
The subject of Holocaust-era assets might seem to be lost in historical debate, but it is one of the affairs of the Second World War that were set aside during the ideological conflicts of the Cold War and never completed. The subject is quite topical, having stirred great current public interest.
While there is always the risk that raising these issues might revive latent anti-Semitism in some quarters, we must not be deterred from establishing the facts and pursuing justice. I believe that our nations, on both sides of the Atlantic, should have the confidence to accept this risk for two reasons. First, consensus as formed over the past half-century among our peoples that anti-Semitism, like racism and other forms of discrimination, is a pernicious phenomenon that is absolutely unacceptable in a civilized world - a consensus which our governments are steadfast in upholding. Secondly, there is also a consensus among the mainstream of our peoples and governments that we must seek the truth about this tragic period of the twentieth century. We must not be intimidated by those on the margins of our societies who reject this civilized consensus. We must move forward, without fear, to embrace justice.
If there is any lesson from World War II and the Holocaust it is this: people of good will must not be cowed or silenced because of threats of extremist elements on the fringes of society, who would only become emboldened by the inaction of the majority.
The search for historical truth about one of the darkest chapters in world history can help us strive toward an international consensus on addressing injustices and preserving memory of the Holocaust. What we aim to accomplish with the Fall Conference is to address some of these Holocaust-era questions in a positive, non-confrontational way before they become conflicts among us and cloud our vision for the twenty-first century.
In this regard, last December’s London Conference on Nazi Gold was a truly significant milestone, crystallizing the emerging consensus that the historical record must be completed and justice must be done. I think that everyone who attended recognized that great progress has been made in illuminating long-obscured facts and in coordinating research, addressing difficult methodological issues, and encouraging governments to open archives and make records fully accessible. I want to pay tribute once again to the British Government – and to Foreign Secretary Robin Cook for his initiative to work to make the Conference such a landmark event. I would also like to praise the special efforts of our own Randy Bell. The Conference also provided the venue for the establishment of a new international fund, the Nazi Persecutees’ Relief Fund, to provide relief to Holocaust survivors. We will be hearing more later this morning about the great progress of the new Fund alongside our efforts to complete the work of the Tripartite Gold Commission.
Although the London Conference focussed mostly on Nazi-looted gold, we had an opportunity, on the third and final day, to begin to expand the discussion to other categories of assets confiscated by the Nazis, or which changed hands as a result of forced sales, during 1933-1945. I announced that the United States would host a second international conference to explore this complex field, primarily focussing on looted artworks and insurance, but also other assets, such as gems and jewelry, books and manuscripts, and securities and bonds, as well as communal property.
The Department of State is delighted to have the US Holocaust Memorial Museum as a partner in this endeavor. As it has evolved over the two decades since its conception and the five years since it opened its doors, the Museum has established itself as one of the world’s foremost institutions for research and education on the Holocaust. We are very fortunate to be able to call upon the Museum’s expertise and resources, and the leadership of the chairman of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, Miles Lerman, as we explore the issues before us.
Our goal today and at the November conference is to sustain the positive momentum generated by the London Conference, as we turn to other categories of assets. The art and insurance issues are especially complex, with the historical record still incomplete, many governmental and non-governmental actors involved, and mechanisms to provide just and fair resolution of restitution and compensation issues still not fully formed. We believe that by exploring the historical record and focussing the attention of governments and NGO’s alike, substantial strides can be made in addressing these issues openly, fairly, and we hope conclusively.
Like the London Conference, the Washington Conference will not be a forum for governmental decision-making. But we want to use the Conference and our preparations – including discussions like today’s and further consultations in the months ahead – to shape principles and processes for redressing injustices in these categories of assets in particular. We hope that such consensus can give new impetus to the encouraging initiatives already underway in many countries on the part of governments, NGO’s, and private institutions.
Artwork is a particularly difficult and emotional subject to address – due to its cultural significance, the equities on many sides, the specific facts particular to each case, and the technical difficulties of provenance research, but it is also extremely important for many of the same reasons. The debate over Nazi-confiscated art often intrudes on questions of sovereignty and the sacred ground of national heritage. The US government has a great interest in seeing issues related to Nazi-confiscated artwork addressed justly, sensitively, and expeditiously. We want the international art market to be open, stable, and free of uncertainty that it might be trading in works whose history is tainted by Nazi looting. We also have a great responsibility to Holocaust survivors and their heirs and families, to shed light on these issues and to encourage appropriate and swift means of addressing them.
On both sides of the Atlantic, Nazi-confiscated art has received increasing attention over the past months, with the result that very encouraging work is already underway on this issue. A number of NGO’s have set up bodies specifically to address the identification of Nazi-confiscated art. Commissions in various countries have continued or have begun work to analyze the historical record in their countries with respect to Nazi-confiscated artwork and to examine more closely the provenance of works in their national collections. Finally, in the wake of the seizure by the Manhattan District Attorney’s office of paintings on loan from an Austrian foundation to the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the museum community both here and in Europe has begun to look at the way it has dealt with this issue.
The American Association of Art Museum Directors has issued guidelines for its members to deal with artwork of unclear provenance to identify pieces which might prove to be tainted as Nazi confiscated art and to weigh, promptly and thoroughly, claims of title to specific works in their collections. Similar work is underway among galleries and auction houses. At the same time, other efforts to establish databases for lost art and its recovery have focussed attention on art from this period.
Similarly, important progress is being made on the issue of Holocaust-era insurance claims. But much about this subject remains unclear, and an essential starting point is to concentrate on establishing the historical record. There are critical questions to ask. For example, how were insurance assets affected by the Holocaust? How did companies handle insurance claims? What did governments do in the immediate post-war period to provide compensation? What are insurance regulators and governments doing today? Insurance companies and responsible government authorities in a number of countries have been asked these and similar questions, to which there are no complete answers yet.
The efforts by the National Association of Insurance Commissioners (chaired by Glenn Pomeroy and his Task Force deputy Neil Levin), the World Jewish Congress, and the Conference on Jewish Material Claims, with the insurers, to address Holocaust-era insurance claims, are a significant development that is urgently needed for survivors. Moreover, the steps by insurers to open their archives for relevant research on this era will help us all come to terms with the tragedy the Nazi regime wrought on the world.
It appears to us in the United States that the consequences of the public debate can be destructive, bearing the seeds of future political conflicts, unless we, the international community, try together to find cooperation and constructive ways to address this subject. Unresolved Nazi-era insurance issues, for instance, risk acrimony affecting the foundation of our business relations.
We believe that the Conference can sharpen international focus on this issue, and catalyze efforts to research and expedite the handling of Holocaust-era insurance claims, in ways which take into consideration the needs of insurance companies, governmental insurance regulators, and Holocaust survivors.
Let me turn for a moment to our program for today. We have called this meeting an "Organizing Seminar" for the Fall Conference. By that we mean that we see this as an opportunity to consult together on shaping the agenda. We on the US side have developed some ideas on addressing the issues I have outlined and what the Conference’s goals should be, which we will be introducing to you in the course of the day. But we need your views: this is an international undertaking that will be served best by a consultative process beginning today. The role of the presenters we have listed on the agenda is to speak for only a few minutes each, concentrating on framing the issues under each topic for subsequent discussion.
We plan to shape our goals over the summer, based on discussion here today and subsequent recommendations from your Governments and from the NGO’s and other private institutions represented here as well. Even with the complexity of the issues, I believe that through this kind of consultation, we can forge common principles to address these issues and to reflect such an emerging consensus in the statement of Conference goals we plan to release in September.
Shortly, I would like to turn to Anthony Layden, who organized the London Conference and who has played a key role in wrapping up the business of the Tripartite Gold Commission in an honorable and just fashion. Since the London Conference, there has been progress on gold issues by the international community in a number of areas, which is the topic for the subsequent presentations and discussion. We then will proceed to the eighth floor to one of the Department’s ceremonial reception rooms, the Benjamin Franklin Room, where a lunch will be served and remarks delivered by Israel Singer on behalf of the World Jewish Congress, Avram Burg on behalf of the World Jewish Restitution Organization, and by Lord Janner on behalf of the Holocaust Education Trust.
After lunch, our Conference coordinator, Mr. J.D. Bindenagel, will introduce our ideas for the framework of the Fall conference, as well as set the stage for the subsequent discussions of the issues which will form the balance of the Conference agenda. These sessions are aimed at setting the agenda; we are not trying to achieve an exhaustive examination of the substance of the issues. In these panels, we want to address several topic areas: first, art; second, insurance; and third, the other assets categories I mentioned earlier.
I would like to add a word about the final segment on Holocaust research, education, and remembrance. We are determined to use the Fall Conference – and to make use of the Holocaust Memorial Museum’s resources and expertise in particular – to focus attention on these critical areas. We hope to build a consensus among all Conference participants to commit to initiate or strengthen Holocaust education programs in each of their countries. Sweden has recently launched a remarkable effort in this regard. I also urge all countries to take concrete steps to allow full and unimpeded access to archival records pertaining to Holocaust-era assets issues.
Let me conclude by recalling our common task. I mentioned before that our agenda is one of the great unfinished works of the twentieth century. The fact that the number of Holocaust survivors, to which the international community has a responsibility urgently to seek justice, is being reduced by biological imperatives lends this work urgency. But we also hope that each country with a stake in these issues will intensify its efforts to examine its own record and confront its own history, on its own terms and in its own way. It is essential that these studies move forward quickly, so that a more comprehensive historical record of the looting and ultimate disposition of Holocaust-era assets can finally be completed as we enter a new millenium. That is why we in the United States created a Holocaust-Era Assets Commission.
Thank you for your attention. I look forward to a day of lively and useful discussion. I now turn to Anthony Layden.