Terezin Declaration: The restitution of property

The Terezin Declaration and the subject of the restitution of property is the focus of an upcoming oral question on 27 July 2020:

Baroness Deech (Crossbench) to ask Her Majesty’s Government what progress they have made towards fulfilling their commitments as a party to the Terezin Declaration of 30 June 2009; and what discussions they have had with the government of Poland about the restitution of property seized from Polish Jewish citizens during the period of Nazi occupation.

This In Focus article provides a brief introduction to the subject to assist Members in preparing for the question.

What is the Terezin Declaration on Holocaust Era Assets and Related Issues?

During the Holocaust era (1933–1945), organised looting was carried out by agencies of the Nazi German state, such as the ‘Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg für die Besetzten Gebiete’ (the Reichsleiter Rosenberg Institute for the Occupied Territories). This resulted in moveable property, such as artwork and books, and immovable property, including houses and synagogues, being taken or confiscated from Jewish communities and other victims of Nazi persecution.

On 30 June 2009, representatives from 46 countries, including the United Kingdom, met at the Holocaust Era Assets Conference in Terezin, Czech Republic. The aim of the conference was to discuss issues such as the welfare of Holocaust (Shoah) survivors and the restitution of property confiscated by the Nazis during the Holocaust era.

At the conclusion of the conference, representatives signed the Terezin Declaration on Holocaust Era Assets and Related Issues, a legally non-binding document, which “not[ed] the importance” of property restitution that belonged to the victims of Nazi persecution.

Acknowledging this, the declaration called for:

Every effort be made to rectify the consequences of wrongful property seizures, such as confiscations, forced sales and sales under duress of property, which were part of the persecution of these innocent people and groups, the vast majority of whom died heirless.

It also outlined a set of measures “geared towards ensuring assistance, redress and remembrance for victims of Nazi persecution”. These included:

  • Welfare of Holocaust survivors and other victims of Nazi persecution: It called on signatories to address the social welfare needs, such as hunger relief, medicine and homecare, of the “most vulnerable elderly victims” of Nazi persecution. This would be in addition to measures to “encourage intergenerational contact” to overcome social isolation.
  • Immovable property: It urged signatories to address the private property claims of Holocaust victims concerning the immovable property of former owners, heirs or successors. For example, by restitution or compensation consistent with relevant national laws and regulations.
  • Jewish cemeteries and burial sites: It called on governmental authorities, civil society and other institutions to identify and protect mass graves of victims of the Holocaust and to ensure that Jewish cemeteries are demarcated, preserved and “kept free from desecration”.
  • Nazi-confiscated and looted art: It asked signatories to ensure legal systems or alternative processes facilitate “just and fair solutions” relating to confiscated and looted art. Governments should make certain that claims to recover such art are “resolved expeditiously” and are based on the facts and merits of the claims submitted by all parties.
  • Education, remembrance, research and memorial sites: It encouraged all states to establish or support annual ceremonies of remembrance and commemoration, and to preserve memorials and “other sites of memory or martyrdom”.
  • Judaica and Jewish cultural property: It urged support for efforts to identify and catalogue Judaica and Jewish cultural items—including sacred scrolls, synagogue and ceremonial objects—which may be found in archives, libraries, museums and other repositories. These should be returned to their original rightful owners and other “appropriate” individuals or institutions.

Further to those measures, the Czech Government established the European Shoah Legacy Institute (ESLI) in Terezin to follow up on the conference and the declaration. The institute served as a voluntary forum for countries, organisations representing Holocaust survivors and other Nazi victims, and non-governmental organisations to “note and promote developments” in the areas the conference and the declaration covered.

In August 2017, the ESLI closed as its services were “no longer in demand”.

What has the UK Government previously said about property restitution?

In February 2020, the Government was asked what progress it had made in assisting Holocaust survivors and their descendants to “secure the restitution of their property” in Poland and what discussions they have had with the government of Poland about such restitution. The Government stated that it’s Post Holocaust Issues Envoy, Lord Pickles, “takes the lead” on discussions regarding restitution of property of Holocaust survivors. Viscount Younger (Government Whip) said that the envoy is involved in “ongoing conversation” on the issue with the Polish government, national and international community organisations, and international intergovernmental representatives.

Recent legislation on the restitution of property

On 4 July 2019, the Holocaust (Return of Cultural Objects) (Amendment) Act 2019 gained royal assent. The Act was originally introduced as a private members’ bill by Theresa Villiers (Conservative MP for Chipping Barnet). It was supported by the Government. The bill sought to remove the sunset clause contained in the Holocaust (Return of Cultural Objects) Act 2009, which would have seen the Act cease to have effect from 11 November 2019. The 2009 Act confers powers on specific UK institutions to return cultural objects lost during the Holocaust era.

During the bill’s report stage in the House of Commons, the then Minister of State at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, Margot James, outlined the Government’s support for the bill, stating that the powers in the 2009 Act should be “extended indefinitely”. In addition, Ms James contended that the bill plays a “vital role” in allowing the Government to “continue to bring some measure of justice to the families of the dispossessed”.

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Image from the Voz Iz Neias? website.