Assets conference calls for faster action

WASHINGTON — Jewish officials called for action — and not merely deliberation — as 44 nations met here this week to examine the fate of Holocaust-era assets.

The State Department and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum convened the four-day conference to focus on a range of assets not covered by last year's London conference on Nazi gold — primarily looted art works and unpaid life and property insurance claims.

But, in a larger sense, Jewish leaders, Holocaust survivors, historians and government leaders were looking to the conference for a different reason.

Namely, they were using it to gauge the international community's commitment to completing the historical record and providing survivors with a long-delayed measure of justice.

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright opened the conference Tuesday with an appeal to the nations gathered to bring closure by the end of the year to the unresolved financial matters of the Holocaust — known in Hebrew as the Shoah — by opening all archives, returning Jewish property and paying all claims.

"Whether we're seeking the payment of life insurance to families of those who perished in the camps, researching art ripped from the walls of the museum in Warsaw or weighing compensation for a synagogue reduced to ashes in Czechoslovakia, the moral imperative is the same," Albright said.

She struck an emotional and deeply personal note as well, invoking before the hundreds of delegates gathered at the State Department the memory of her Jewish grandparents who died in the Holocaust.

"I think of the blood that is in my family veins," Albright said. "Does it matter what kind of blood it is? It shouldn't. It is just blood that does its job. But it mattered to Hitler, and that matters to us all, because that is why 6 million Jews died."

Her remarks were believed to be her most extensive public comments about her Jewish lineage following her discovery last year that her Czech grandparents and other relatives died in the Holocaust.

At the outset, it remained unclear whether the conference, which was not intended as a decision-making forum, would succeed in prodding countries along the path toward full disclosure of their handling of Jewish assets and providing restitution.

Edgar Bronfman, president of the World Jewish Congress, urged the delegates to adopt "practical and immediate proposals to secure financial restitution."

He warned against having another Bermuda Conference, referring to a 1943 gathering dealing with the issue of Jewish refugees that was widely regarded as a sham.

Toward that end, U.S. Undersecretary of State Stuart Eizenstat, who organized the conference, said he would try to forge an international consensus on looted art. He promised to urge countries to agree to a set of principles calling for new efforts to match art with claims and new methods to resolve disputes over claims.

World Jewish Congress officials said they want to see governments holding looted art either return the works to their rightful heirs, auction them for the benefit of Holocaust survivors or provide appropriate compensation. It singled out France, which has acknowledged that it has more than 2,000 looted artworks, but has returned fewer than five.

Coincidental to the conference, one famous artwork with a tainted past came to light this week. The Boston Globe broke the story that Claude Monet's "Water Lilies 1904" was likely stolen by the Nazis from a Jewish collector. The painting, which is on loan from a French museum, is on display at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts until Monday.