PRAGUE - An international conference assessing efforts to return property and possessions stolen by the Nazis to their rightful owners or heirs said Monday that caring for Holocaust survivors is a matter of the "utmost urgency."
The five-day meeting attended by Holocaust survivors, Jewish groups and government officials was a follow-up to a 1998 meeting in Washington that led to agreements on recovering looted art.
Six million Jews died at the hands of Adolf Hitler and his followers, who seized billions of dollars of gold, art and private and communal property across Europe.
In a declaration approved by 46 countries, delegates said they were aware that Holocaust survivors and other victims of Nazi persecution have reached an advanced age and that meeting their social welfare needs must be prioritized.
"It is unacceptable that those who suffered so greatly during the earlier part of their lives should live under impoverished circumstances at the end," the declaration said.
It also urged governments to make every effort to return former Jewish communal and religious property confiscated by Nazis, fascists and their collaborators, and recommended that states implement national programs to address the issue of private buildings and land.
Before the meeting, Stuart Eizenstat, head of the U.S. delegation, had said its goal was to produce international guidelines on the recovery of such stolen possessions or compensation for their loss. But he acknowledged that such guidelines would not be compulsory for the governments involved because there is "no political will to have a binding treaty."
But he hailed Monday's declaration as the "the most far reaching, most comprehensive" ever issued. It "covers every single area, including many that haven't been covered before, social needs, private property restitution, which has always been an extraordinarily sensitive issue," Eizenstat said.
Before the Holocaust, Jews owned property in Europe that was worth between $10 billion and $15 billion at the time, according to a 2007 study by economist Sidney Zabludoff.
Most of that was never repaid, translating into a missing $115 billion to $175 billion in current prices, the study said. Many Western European governments paid restitution for only a fraction of the stolen assets, while Eastern European countries under Soviet control paid almost nothing at all, it said.
"We're just coming to terms with the dimension of the theft," said Eizenstat.
He said surveys conducted in New York City found that 36 per cent of Holocaust survivors are at or below the poverty level. He said it was "tremendously important" for art and property recovery that the governments made verbal commitments to open archives at every level.
Eizenstat said the Vatican, which has observer status at the meeting, will open its war archives in six years and that Poland promised to introduced private property law which will deal with the Holocaust era. In 2008, the Vatican said it understood requests to see the archives, but that it would take six or seven years to catalogue those 16 million documents.
Delegates also agreed to create a European Shoah Legacy Institute in the former Jewish ghetto in Terezin, north of Prague. Eizenstat said it is expected to publish a set of guidelines and principles for best practices in private property restitution in a year.
The concluding declaration also urged the states to take measures to combat anti-Semitism and encouraged participating states to support educational programs about the Holocaust, commemoration ceremonies and the preservation of memorials in concentration camps, as well cemeteries and mass graves.
Not everyone was pleased with the declaration, which is not legally binding.
"I don't see any forward movement," said Alex Moskovic, a 78-year-old U.S. Holocaust survivor. "Greater survivor involvement in the formulation of the conference agenda and working groups would have produced a better result."
The European Commission and the Czech EU presidency signed a statement saying they are ready to work to improve Holocaust education and deal with social care for survivals and other issues. Eizenstat called it "the first time real engagement in this issue which has been lacking in the past."
The five-day gathering concludes Tuesday with a commemorative ceremony in Terezin, known to the Nazis as Theresienstadt.
On the Net:
Holocaust Era Assets Conference: http://www.holocausteraassets.eu