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Europe: Holocaust Conference Seeks Belated Justice

Washington, 3 December 1998 (RFE/RL) -- First the Nazis looted Jewish assets and sent six million of them to their deaths. Then came the communists who confiscated the properties of survivors after Soviet troops rolled into Eastern and Central Europe.

Senior American diplomat Stuart Eizenstat calls these Holocaust survivors "double victims" and says they or their heirs must be compensated.

"It is our common responsibility to ensure that, finally, justice is done," he says. "To delay justice further would dishonor us all."

An international conference, which concludes in Washington today, is trying to do just that. Its mission is to put certain standards into effect that would deal with injustices remaining from the Holocaust era -- especially issues related to looted art, insurance and communal property owned by Jewish and other groups persecuted by the Nazis.

Experts say Nazi confiscation of art owned by European Jews amounted to hundreds of millions of dollars in today's value. Some of the art was later seized by the Soviets and taken to the Soviet Union or confiscated by the communist governments installed behind the Iron Curtain.

Eizenstat says that by some estimate fully one-fifth of all the art in Europe was taken by the Nazis and their accomplices during the war.

Delegates from 44 countries, including from Russia, Hungary and the Czech Republic, attended the conference along with groups representing Jewish, art, history and insurance interests.

Eizenstat, who is Undersecretary of State for economy, business and agricultural affairs, told the conference Wednesday returning seized property is running into obstacles across Europe such as slow-moving governments and legal questions involving restitution to current owners.

In a highly personal speech, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright told the gathering that justice for Holocaust victims "requires that painful memories be revisited, easy evasions confronted and inconvenient questions asked and answered."

The Czech-born Albright, who lost three Jewish grandparents to Nazi concentration camps, moved the delegates by relating the conference's work to her personal history.

Albright said: "I think of the blood that is in my family veins. Does it matter what kind of blood it is? It shouldn't; it is just blood that does its job. But it mattered to Hitler and that matters to us all; because that is why 6 million Jews died.

And that is why this obscenity of suffering was visited on so many innocent, irreplaceable people -- people who loved and enriched life with their warmth, their smiles and the embrace of their arms; people whose lives ended horribly and far too soon; people whose lives and suffering we must never forget or allow to diminish, even if we must, from time to time, intentionally shock our collective memory."

Albright, who was raised as a Catholic and has said she learned of her Jewish roots only last year, added: "The peoples of the world differ in language, culture, history and choices of worship. Such differences make life interesting and rich. But as the Holocaust cries out to us, we must never allow these distinctions to obscure the common humanity that binds us all as people. We must never allow ride in us to curdle into hatred of them. Remembering that lesson is what this effort at research and restitution of Holocaust-Era assets is really all about. For it is about much more than gold and art and insurance; it's about remembering that no one's blood is less or more precious than our own."

Albright said the conference's work must be driven by certain imperatives.

She said: "The first is that our goal must be justice, even though justice in this searing context is a highly relative term. We know well our inability to provide true justice to Holocaust victims. We cannot restore life nor rewrite history. But we can make the ledger slightly less out of balance by devoting our time, energy and resources to the search for answers, the return of property and the payment of just claims."

The second imperative, she said, must be openness.

"Because the sands of time have obscured so much, we must dig to find the truth," she said. The third imperative, Albright said, is to understand that the obligation to seek truth and act on it is "not the burden of some, but of all; it is universal." Finally, she said, what propels this mission is urgency. She noted that remaining Holocaust survivors have reached an advanced stage in life and as records are lost and memories fade, effective restitution becomes more difficult.