Survivors need justice, while there is still time

Restitution to victims of the Nazis is now a matter of urgency

By Lord Janner, July 2, 2009

In Prague this week, I addressed the Holocaust Era Assets Conference with representatives from nearly 50 countries. I found myself reflecting on how far we have come since the London Conference on Nazi Gold, some 12 years ago, yet with so much still to achieve.

I was joined by a number of British colleagues, including my hero, Holocaust survivor Ben Helfgott MBE, and members of the Commission for Looted Art in Europe, all of us hoping for concrete progress. Pride in what we have achieved is tempered by the knowledge that there remains much to do if we are to fulfil our duty to those murdered by the Nazis and to others who suffered greatly but survived.

Ambassador Stuart Eizenstat, a driving force in this cause for well over a decade, said that the conference represents “one of the last chances” to ensure that justice prevails. How right he is. The legacy of the Holocaust weighs heavily on all of us. But history will judge the nations that participated by their conduct today — and while Holocaust survivors are still with us, we must do everything possible both to honour them and their families who perished, and to advance the cause of restitution and justice.

I vividly recall meeting Sir Malcolm Rifkind when he was Foreign Secretary, to persuade him to launch an inquiry. He did, and his successor, Robin Cook, brought the world to London for the first Nazi gold conference in 1997. Britain’s role in setting the agenda was powerful — and we can take pride in this.

That conference proved to be a launch pad. The nations which pledged to right historical wrongs embarked on a path that led to a follow-up conference in Washington DC the next year, then to Sweden, and now to Prague. We put out a call for truth, transparency and justice — and it did not go totally unanswered.

The Nazis stole a generation. My entire family in Latvia and Lithuania was murdered. Immediately following the war, restitution was not a priority for the Allies and serious mistakes were made that failed to restore what was owed to victims of the Nazis and to their families. The London conference laid the foundations for putting right 40 years of inaction — but all nations must recognise they now need to show solid results.

At the conclusion of the Conference, the Terezin Declaration was formally adopted. It is a comprehensive document with a commitment to securing just solutions to property restitution, and to the vital importance of Holocaust remembrance and education. But these words must be translated into action. Too often, nations have dragged their feet in enacting fine principles.

These issues, surrounding private and communal property, gold, art and other assets must be addressed with full commitment and a sense of great urgency.

The nations of Central and Eastern Europe in particular must do more. All nations must remember their duty of care to survivors and the responsibility to educate future generations about that darkest chapter in our history.

The eyes of the world will be on them. Prague was a key reminder that we must do what is right, do it effectively, and do it now — before it is too late.

Lord Janner of Braunstone QC is Chairman of the Holocaust Educational Trust

Last updated: 4:33pm, July 2 2009