US government advisor Stuart Eizenstat: economic downturn shouldn’t affect Holocaust property restitution

Stuart Eizenstat (left), Czech Foreign minister Jan Kohout, photo: CTK

In June 2009, during the Czech Republic’s EU presidency, 46 countries pledged to provide assistance to Holocaust survivors, to accelerate the restitution of property stolen during the Holocaust, and to set up a special institute to pursue these commitments. The special advisor to the US secretary of state for Holocaust-era assets, Stuart Eizenstat, is back in Prague this week checking on developments.

“The Prague conference in June 2009 was the first one that committed to create a follow-up institution to see that the general commitments that were being made by countries were being implemented. And that’s what the European Shoa Legacy Institute in Terezín is all about. They committed to set it up, and it’s now real, it’s up and running, and it’s going to be a very important institution; it will be a centre of world-wide Holocaust interest.

Stuart Eizenstat  (left),  Czech Foreign minister Jan Kohout,  photo: CTK
“It will be one location where you can go their website and will be sent to any website around the world – the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Polish museum and so forth, and get information in one location. It’s also the facilitator for what I’m here today and tomorrow to do, which is to try and negotiate with the Czech government and 46 other countries voluntary, non-binding best practices and principles for private property restitution or compensation.”

Have you seen progress or any practical implications of the conference that took place in Prague last year? Has if facilitated the process of property restitution?

“It has facilitated the process of developing best practices for private property restitution. We now have a draft which we have circulated and which we hope will be endorsed tomorrow, and will be promulgated by the Czech Prime Minister, Jan Fischer, on June 9.

“In addition, the US government has committed 150,000 US dollars per year for the next five years to help fund the European Shoa Legacy Institute at Terezín, so we’re putting the financial commitment behind it and we’ll encourage other governments as well as the European Commission to be supportive of its very important activities and mission, which is to continue to keep the memory of those who dies and those who continue to survive, to focus on their special needs. Half of the 500,000 Holocaust survivors around the world live at or bellow the poverty line, and that includes 25 percent of survivors in the United States itself, and over 30 percent in Israel, so there is a lot of work to do.

“But we hope that the European Shoa Legacy Institute will be a catalyst for that action. And it’s very appropriate that the Czech government is really the creator of this institute and we are very pleased to be one of the prime funders of it.”

Are you concerned at all that these plans might suffer the consequences of the prolonged financial and economic crisis?

“That’s a very good question because the European financial crisis and the one we had in the United States in 2008 and 2009 obviously cast a cloud over a lot of things – but not this. The reason is that the amounts of money involved to fund the institute are very small, number one. Number two, developing creative programmes for restitution of private property can be done over a period of years, can be done quite inexpensively.

“Everyone knows that when it’s impossible to get the total fair market value of property back - we are talking about fractions of that. It’s in some respect symbolic. In some cases, for example, if this former property is in state hands, in the hands of the government, it can be restituted in kind. If it’s in private hands, flexible compensation programmes, swaps of equivalent property can be done.”