J.D. Bindenagel, Director of the Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets|
Presentation on panel at the annual meeting
of the American Jewish Committee,
Seattle, Washington, November 4, 1998
I am delighted to be among you this evening and wish in particular to thank Rabbi Baker and Nancy Vineberg. They have thought it appropriate for me to participate in this important meeting because of my work in directing the preparations for the upcoming Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets to be held at the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, November 30-December 3. Indeed, as Conference Director, I am well placed to describe the current diplomatic efforts and objectives of the Federal Government with our focus on Holocaust-era assets, especially art and insurance, at the Washington Conference.
What Rabbi Baker and Ms. Vineberg could not know is how many connections I have had to these issues over the past 25 years.
As a soldier in Germany in 1972, I learned of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives units of the U.S. Forces and of Captain Skelton, who saved the historic Tiepolo frescoed ceiling of the Wurzburg Residence where I was stationed as a lieutenant.
As a diplomat, I have worked with David Harris of the AJC as well as with World Jewish Congress and Claims Conference leaders Israel Singer, Israel Miller, and Saul Kagan, as well as others over the years on restitution efforts targeting American property claims against the German Democratic Republic and the extension of pension benefits for Holocaust survivors in eastern Europe. As the U.S. Department of State's Central Europe Office Director, I coordinated the visit by several heads of State to the 1993 Holocaust Memorial Museum opening. And I was acting American Ambassador in Bonn when the American Jewish Committee decided to open its office in Germany.
As you can already see from these few examples, our government's interest in resolving the unanswered questions surrounding Holocaust-era assets goes back to the immediate post-war years, when it took a leadership role, perhaps in recognition of its responsibilities stemming from tragic wartime policies on refugees and from the horrors of the concentration camps.
But the U.S. Government role diminished as the Cold War descended on us. While there is no nefarious motive that can be attributed to U.S. Government policy-makers of that period, I think it's fair to say that we had then other, very demanding priorities. One of these was, of course, to get on with the business of rebuilding Western Europe, and another, linked objective through the Marshall Plan was to create a bulwark against Soviet expansionism. Responsibility shifted to organizations such as the American Jewish Committee to lead American efforts in those years.
Now with the end of the Cold War, responsibility has shifted back to the U.S. Government. Congress has taken a strong role in hearings and deliberations to keep Holocaust issues before the public. The Administration, too, has been active. Early on, President Clinton sought to draw lessons from the Holocaust as we worked to end the conflict in Bosnia, where "ethnic cleansing" was so reminiscent of Nazi actions. Elie Wiesel warned us of our moral responsibilities in Bosnia appropriately at the opening of the U.S. Government's own United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
By 1995, the President had asked Stuart Eizenstat, while he was the U.S. Ambassador to the European Union in Brussels, to get involved in helping Holocaust victims seek redress for Nazi injustices. He continued his work when, in 1996, he became Under Secretary of Commerce and mobilized an inter-agency group to coordinate government efforts.
Now Under Secretary of State for Economic, Business, and Agricultural Affairs, Stuart Eizenstat has maintained his leading role by directing the compilation and official publication of two significant reports exposing what a tragic a chapter in the history of international relations the Holocaust represents.
At the end of 1997, under the chairmanship of Her Majesty's Government, we continued our focus on the justice the United States and the international community could provide for the Holocaust survivors. The venue was the London Gold Conference, a landmark in the effort to illuminate long-obscured facts. There, governments achieved a striking degree of acknowledgment of and agreement on the key historical facts, and the historical findings served as a powerful incentive to our own and to other governments to come forward and do justice. The London Conference proved to be a fitting vehicle for the United Kingdom and the United States to announce the Nazi Persecutee Relief Fund, a new international initiative to furnish some restitution -- however little and however late -- to the Holocaust survivors. The U.S. Government has decided to contribute, and in February, President Clinton signed the Nazi Persecutees Relief Act into law; it authorizes a $25 million U.S. contribution to the fund over 3 years.
Our greatest hope for the London Conference was realized in that it gave fresh impetus and momentum to the emerging international consensus for truth and for justice to be done. It established a constructive tone and tenor for our common enterprise over the coming days and months. In particular, while the London Conference appropriately focused on gold, we recognized the importance of other assets -- especially, for the purposes of our discussion tonight, artworks, but also including communal property and insurance.
And so I come to the Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets, where invited government and non-government delegations will press for a process to reach moral and material accounting. To build on the London Conference and to give attention to these other assets issues, we are hosting in Washington a follow-up conference with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
This Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets to be held over 3 full days, beginning on the evening of November 30, is designed first and foremost to forge an international consensus on how best to proceed in restituting property confiscated by the Nazis during the Holocaust era. Gold has been the property category thus far most extensively examined, in particular at the London Conference. The Washington Conference will update the progress made since that epoch-making event, noting both the historical studies undertaken and completed and the process of closing out the work of the Tripartite Gold Commission. The conference focus, however, will be on other assets.
Let me now briefly address that asset which most interests this meeting tonight -- Nazi-confiscated art. The Washington Conference will, above all, provide a balanced view of the history of the problem of this art. Noteworthy here will be governments' attempts to address principles and guidelines on handling these artworks, the problems with tracking and identifying so-called "lost" art, and private-sector actions to help resolve the issue of Nazi-confiscated art. A logical outcome to these discussions will be general principles and processes that may be applied by all government and private parties to addressing the issue of Nazi-tainted art.
The international nature of the conference makes it an ideal venue to encourage international cooperation among governments, museums, auction houses, and art dealers in establishing the provenance of artworks and in resolving disputes over ownership of Nazi-confiscated art in order to expedite the restitution process. The international community has already shown interest in facing head-on the related issues of provenance and restitution of works of art. We therefore anticipate wide support for creating a guide to all the relevant archival information on Nazi-confiscated artwork as well as a central repository of such information -- perhaps as a database.
Let me emphasize that, even in its developmental stage, the Washington Conference, thanks to the contacts and discussions occurring among many key actors, has already contributed to helpful action in the art world. The work in the United States of the Association of Art Museum Directors to advance a set of guidelines governing "tainted" Holocaust-era art represents an excellent departure point for work on this issue at the conference. In addition, the likelihood of Austrian legislation essentially eliminating the statute of limitations governing claims of Nazi-confiscated art could well represent a defining tool for art restitution in that country as well as a powerful example for others.
I close my presentation to you with two assurances: One, the issue of Nazi-confiscated assets and their restitution will receive a fair international hearing at the upcoming conference. Two, the Washington Conference will leave a legacy of lessons learned. The international community will as a significant part of the conference also consider education, remembrance, and research with the intention of reinforcing around the world the historic meaning and enduring lessons of the Holocaust. The last word in this century on the Holocaust should not be money. We look to memory -- the history we wish to remember -- to honor those whose lives were sacrificed that we might learn and never face another Holocaust.
What is left, then, is for the more than 40 government delegations and some dozen international non-governmental organizations attending the conference to do all they can to preserve the dignity and honor of those who suffered and who died in this century's greatest crime. With a fact-based understanding of this century's history and an international commitment to the continued search for justice, we can look to a brighter century ahead of us -- a century of tolerance, of diversity, and of peace for ourselves and our children.
[End of Document]
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