Holocaust assets conference resolves thorny issues

WASHINGTON — New momentum created by last week's international conference in Washington on Holocaust-era assets may help resolve some of the tougher areas in the ongoing restitution battle.

"The art world will never be the same in the way it deals with Nazi-confiscated art," said U.S. Undersecretary of State Stuart Eizenstat, who organized the conference.

Among the key fronts:

*Looted art

The delegates agreed to a set of non-binding principles intended to help identify and publicize artworks looted by the Nazis, so that their rightful owners can claim them.

Russia, in a symbolic move following a commitment to identify and return looted art, turned over three secret documents detailing art looted from Austrian Jews.

France, stung by criticism from the World Jewish Congress and others for the way it has handled the looted art issue, said that if it had not tracked down wartime owners of looted art by the end of next year, it would consider proposals for providing restitution.

France continued to reject calls by the World Jewish Congress to auction more than 2,000 looted works to benefit Holocaust survivors.

*Insurance claims

Most of the nations gathered endorsed a newly created international commission, which would include insurance groups, government officials and Jewish representatives, as the best mechanism for dealing with unpaid life and property insurance claims dating back to the Holocaust era.

So far, six European firms have joined the commission and pledged $90 million into an escrow fund from which future claimants will be paid.

The delegates urged other companies to join the commission, adding that they want to see pending class-action lawsuits against insurance carriers resolved through the commission's activities.

*Communal property

No consensus was reached on how to expedite the process of settling claims to religious and other communal properties confiscated by the Nazis.

While some countries have recognized their obligation to return confiscated property, Eizenstat said, "there remains in some countries a lukewarm commitment to completing quickly the work at hand."

Poland said it would consider hosting a conference on communal property restitution — a move that Eizenstat called "encouraging."

*Archival access

The United States urged all the delegations to open all public and private archives pertaining to the Holocaust by the end of next year.

Most nations pledged cooperation, but the Vatican continued to resist appeals for disclosure.

*Holocaust education

Officials from the United States, Israel, Sweden, Britain and Germany announced the first intergovernmental effort to promote Holocaust education, remembrance and research around the world.

Sweden offered to host an international conference next year or in early 2000 on international Holocaust education.

*More conferences

In addition to conferences on Holocaust education and communal property, follow-up conferences were proposed for dealing with looted art, slave labor and racism, as well anti-Semitism on the Internet.

The possibility remained open that a third international conference on Holocaust assets could be convened next year, perhaps in Jerusalem.

Officials also proposed creating a comprehensive Internet site that would pool all reports and documents on Holocaust-era assets.