Forum examines looted Holocaust art
By Eric Coker
This year’s Holocaust Era Assets Conference in the Czech Republic proved productive in the effort to help survivors and their families recover property taken by the Nazis, a Binghamton University alumnus said Nov. 20.
“It finally gave us a way of moving forward,” said Owen Pell '80 (pictured), a U.S. litigator and a delegate at the Prague conference. “We have an agenda and we have goals.” Pell returned to Binghamton to speak at the Binghamton University Forum about “The Fate of Art Looted During the Holocaust.”
“I’ve always liked coming back to Binghamton because I really don’t know if I can ever do enough to give back to the University and town for what they gave to me when I went here as a student,” he said. “It was a wonderful experience that lives on.”
Pell began his talk by discussing the history and nature of the problem. The thefts were “calculated and coordinated as a part of the Nazi program of eliminating Jewish culture,” Pell said. Before the war, Nazis applied wealth and flight taxes, while forcing the sale of some Jewish assets.
“Once the war started in earnest, it was just out and out looting,” Pell said.
Millions of pieces of property were never recovered. Victims were hindered by legal standards that varied from country to country, a lack of access to information and the general whereabouts of the property.
“If a burglar breaks into your house, you’re still in your home,” Pell said. “At least you know where you are. At the end of the Holocaust, the entire Jewish population of Europe was either wiped out or dispersed. … The victims were dispersed and the goods were dispersed.”
In 1998, countries were brought together for the first time to look at the problem of property identification and restitution. But the Washington Conference on Holocaust Era Assets only acknowledged that the problem existed. A decade later, the United States pressured European nations to return to the table. The former Czechoslovakia, the first nation taken over by Germany in 1938, embraced the role of host and the June 2009 conference was established.
Pell, a partner with the New York City-based law firm White & Case, was asked by the U.S. government to serve as legal adviser for the U.S. delegation. He helped officials draft remarks and briefed them about meetings with foreign delegations.
The conference ended with the adoption of the Terezin Declaration. The Europeans accepted the idea of “best practices,” or evidence of what the law should be moving toward, as opposed to the multiple legal standards. A Terezin Institute will then issue a set of “best practices” to the European Union that would be used as an implementation to return property in eastern Europe.
With the Holocaust-era population shrinking 1 percent per month, Pell has long been an advocate of best practices.
“To me, the fastest way to resolve a lot of Holocaust issues will be some form of civil rights-like legislation that will begin to establish precedent, begin to change the way the market for certain kinds of property works and will begin to alter behavior,” he said.
Despite the success in Prague, obstacles remain.
Pell pointed to Auschwitz, the former concentration camp that is maintained by the Polish government as a memorial. Exhibits there include property taken from Jews, such as cardboard suitcases, baby toys and artificial limbs.
A Holocaust survivor visited Auschwitz, saw his suitcase and demanded it back, Pell said. The Polish delegation came to the Prague conference saying that the site and artifacts were good for humanity and that the Polish government should serve as custodians over it. Pell wants the Poles to be consistent: be custodians, not owners, of looted property. The Poles are considering the request.
“There’s no perfect justice here,” Pell said. “You can make lots of arguments as to why the man who suffered should get his suitcase. But you can also make arguments why it’s important for future generations to be able to go to Auschwitz and see that suitcase. These are the kinds of issues we are sorting out.”
Pell compared some of the issues to “banging your head against the wall.” Eventually, he said, calluses develop and he and others keep chipping away at a mountain of a problem.
“The good news about what happened at Prague is now there is a way to chip at the mountain better. We have better tools. Hopefully over the next few years, maybe we’ll start seeing a little more justice in the area as we sort out some of these difficult problems.”
For a profile of Owen Pell, including his remembrances of political science professor Edward Weisman, go online to the just-released fall issue of Binghamton University Magazine.
Watch a video of Pell’s speech at the Binghamton University Forum on the University's YouTube site.