World ORT calls for a unified approach to Holocaust restitution


01 July 2009 World ORT calls for a unified approach to Holocaust restitution World ORT is urging all Jewish organisations to work together to ensure that assets stolen during the Holocaust are recovered in a way that maximises benefits for Survivors and Jewish communities. In Prague this week, top level meetings were held between World ORT and representatives of other leading Jewish organisations at the Holocaust Era Assets Conference hosted by the Government of the Czech Republic. The discussions focused on how to move forward on the restitution of assets and took on a greater urgency as the 46 European and other states participating in the Conference affirmed their determination to do more to return looted property to the rightful owners. My hope is that all Jewish organisations involved in this process will succeed in uniting and working together to honour the memory of those who perished and to maximise benefit for those who survived, said World ORT Director General and CEO Robert Singer. ‘> Photo credit: Ondřej Besper t For much of its 130-year history, ORTs educational and training programmes were concentrated in Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Union. Many of the students and staff were among the victims of the genocide and the buildings in which they had prepared for a better future were confiscated. Over the past 11 years, state authorities have acted to recover looted property and institute compensation scheme. But, in a declaration made yesterday (Tuesday) at the Conferences conclusion, representatives of the participating countries affirmed an urgent need to strengthen such work as there remain substantial issues to be addressed because only a part of the confiscated property has been recovered or compensated. This sentiment was shared by Dr Emil Kalo, the Chairman of ORT Bulgaria and member of the World ORT Board of Trustees, who addressed the Conference on Monday. International organisations such as ORT were never properly involved in the restitution process, Dr Kalo told the plenary. Historical justice dictates that this must change. He sought to reassure those countries which are grappling with the prospect of making massive payouts in the coming years that World ORT was not seeking to profit from restitution but to use returned assets to re-invest in these same countries, most of which again boast ORT programmes of various sizes. We are not exporting, Dr Kalo said, we are importing: know-how, money, equipment. We are investors in the future of Jewish communities. Education is the most prospective investment. Education is a long term investment. Each of the countries and communities where ORT has operations in Europe will benefit for years to come. And he stressed that the unity of purpose and avoidance of conflict which World ORT was aiming for were not confined to its relations with Jewish organisations. We are open to cooperation with other Jewish organisations, governments and organisational bodies in order to achieve rightful restitution and continuity of Jewish life in Europe, he said, encapsulating World ORTs traditional approach of working closely with the authorities and communities in the places where it operates. Speaking after the Conference, Mr Singer said World ORTs participation was all about investing in the future. It is impossible to change the past but we can mould the future by creating appropriate educational tools by using ORTs knowhow to teach future generations to be more Jewish, to be more connected to Israel, to value tolerance and enjoy harmonious and productive relations with their non-Jewish neighbours, he said. Mr Singer looked forward to World ORT being able to use restored property in the region to provide much needed help for ORT schools and training programmes in the region. We manage to attain standards of excellence despite the sometimes inadequate condition of current buildings, he said. Our institutions could become the best in their countries with the environment and investment our returned property could provide. The successful outcome of this process could mean the realisation of many dreams, such as the creation of a teachers institute in Lithuania for ORTs teachers along the lines of the one World ORT ran at Anieres, Switzerland for many years after the war. We also want to create websites about the Jewish communities in these places, in particular to highlight how they were affected during the Holocaust. The urgency with which World ORT and other organisations are treating the issue of restitution reflects the need for more resources to nurture the resurgence of Jewish communal life in Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Union. They are also mindful of the need for Holocaust remembrance and education to counter the increasing problems of Holocaust denial and antisemitism. It was this wave of Jew hatred sweeping Europe which Vaclav Havel, the former President of the Czech Republic, said in a videotaped greeting made the Conference the most important event of the Republics presidency of the European Union. He said the new found popularity for antisemitism and other hatreds was a response to the homogenising tendency of globalisation and he added that the weapons, including nuclear arms, now coming within reach of the hate mongers were increasingly sophisticated. Thus there is a direct connection between racism to terrorism and between terrorism and the most modern technologies, Mr Havel said. In the face of this growing danger it is increasingly important to recall the Holocaust and to demonstrate to ourselves and our children what are the inevitable consequences of fanaticism and of racial and national hatred. The four-day conference concluded yesterday (Tuesday) at Terezin, site of the wartime ghetto which is also known by its German name of Theresienstadt . Here, only one lifetime ago, tens of thousands of Jewish lives were cruelly taken; tens of thousands more Jews enjoyed a brief and bitterly uncomfortable reprieve before being shipped to extermination camps. Yesterday, representatives of the 46 states which participated in the conference gathered at Terezin to put their names to the Terezin Declaration, which re-affirmed the gruesome facts of the Holocaust, acknowledged the importance of Holocaust education, and noted the special and urgent needs of Survivors. This Declaration formally established the European Shoah Legacy Institute in Terezin which will serve as a voluntary forum for countries, Survivors organisations and NGOs to note and promote developments in the issues covered by the Conference and the Declaration itself. The Terezin Declaration was coupled with a joint declaration by the European Commission and the Czech EU-Presidency declaring their readiness to make every effort and create a more effective European approach by supporting goals dealing primarily with education and social welfare such as Holocaust education and research, the social welfare of Survivors, and the preservation of memorials in former concentration camps and other sites of memory.