World

Nazi-seized property return rules outlined

Dozens of nations announced Wednesday that they would try harder to return real estate stolen by the Nazis, opening archives and processing claims for restitution faster.

Dozens of nations announced Wednesday that they would try harder to return real estate stolen by the Nazis, opening archives and processing claims for restitution faster.

Forty-three countries backed the first set of global guidelines for returning the real estate to its rightful owners or heirs.

Stuart Eizenstat, the main U.S. negotiator on the compensation of wartime slave and forced labor victims, speaks at a press conference in Prague, Czech Republic, on June 29, 2009. ((David Josek/Associated Press))

The nonbinding rules call for more transparency and speed in the processing of restitution claims for property stolen between 1933 and 1945. They also state that people claiming lost property should be given free access to all relevant local, regional and national archives.

"We've made a major advance in providing belated justice to victims and their families," Stuart Eizenstat, a special adviser to the U.S. Secretary of State on Holocaust issues, said at a presentation of the rules in the Prague.

"For the first time in 65 years ... nations have come together in Prague to provide a guideline and best practices for property confiscated and wrongly seized by the Nazis, fascists and their collaborators during the Holocaust era," he added.

Before the Holocaust, Jews owned property in Europe that was worth between $10.52 billion and $15.78 billion at the time, according to a 2007 study by economist Sidney Zabludoff.

Most was taken and never returned or paid for, translating into a missing $120.96 billion to $184.07 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 in the Soviet bloc paid almost nothing at all, it said.

Israel's ambassador to the Czech republic said he was "satisfied" with Wednesday's outcome.

"We've been negotiating for close to a year with some ups and downs and the final document practically addresses all our concerns," Yaakov Levy said.

Others, such as the former chairman of Prague's Jewish community, were skeptical that the new rules would bring about change any time soon.

"It would be revolutionary if governments really adhere to these guidelines," said Tomas Jelinek. "It would be a miracle."

The rules are the product of yearlong negotiations kicked off at an international restitution conference in Prague last June.

Delegates at that conference 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.

The guidelines also encourage states to eliminate hurdles for non-citizens seeking seized property and call for special funds to be set up in cases where there are no heirs to claim the stolen real estate.

Envoy appointed

Separately on Wednesday, Britain appointed its first-ever envoy to deal with post-Holocaust issues.

Foreign Secretary William Hague announced that Andrew Burns, a former ambassador to Israel, will take the job. Hague says Britain is committed to preserving the memory of the Holocaust and will support efforts to make sure that the lessons of this period in history are not forgotten.

Burns will oversee efforts to resolve outstanding issues related to property and art restitution and take part in some education efforts.

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