In 2009, 47 states came together at the invitation of the Prime Minister of the Czech Republic to discuss the restitution of property looted in Europe during and after World War II. This meeting culminated in the Terezin Declaration on Holocaust Era Assets since 1945, a watershed effort to address Holocaust-related restitution issues.
Importantly, the Terezin Declaration led to the founding of the European Shoah Legacy Institute (ESLI) which monitors compliance and promotes progress on these issues. Through the leadership of New York partner Owen Pell, who served as counsel to the US delegation at the Terezin Conference, ESLI became a pro bono client of the Firm shortly after its founding.
In addition to working with governments and NGOs to realize the provisions of the Terezin Declaration, ESLI maintains several primary areas of focus, including promoting Holocaust remembrance and research, and working to ensure the welfare of 500,000 Holocaust survivors alive today, up to half of whom live in poverty.
A pro bono team of White & Case lawyers led by Owen recently contributed to a landmark ESLI study, The Holocaust (Shoah) Immoveable Property Study. The study, which comes to almost 1300 pages, built on the involvement of Terezin signatories, property restitution experts, and four other law firms.
The study finds that most states in Western Europe have largely complied with the principles of the Declaration—but that many former Communist states have not yet enacted comprehensive legislation. As a result, according to the study, restitution has not been given for a "substantial amount" of property confiscated from European Jews.
The study was presented at an international conference hosted in April at the European Parliament in Brussels and conducted under the auspices of the President of the European Parliament. The conference was entitled, "Unfinished Justice: Restitution and Remembrance."
"The involvement of the President of the European Parliament was important," Owen says. "It followed the EU's creation of an office on genocide and mass atrocity prevention as well as a European Parliament resolution calling on the EU to take greater steps in preventing future outbreaks of atrocity violence in Europe. The ESLI study fits into a broader pattern of consensus building among EU nations focused on using the Holocaust as a point of departure for genocide prevention."
By examining legislation passed by the 47 endorsing states since the end of World War II, the study assesses the efficacy of each country's efforts to return or provide compensation for land and other property or assets confiscated during the Holocaust. This includes both pre-war Jewish private property and Jewish religious and communal property, such as synagogues.
"Contributing to this study is part of our ongoing pro bono commitment to the important work of the ESLI," Owen says. "As private practitioners, we were able to bring an important perspective to this work, in addition to providing research capability that most NGOs and governments lack. The study will play an important part in furthering the dialogue surrounding Holocaust restitution issues and creating more consistent approaches to the complex issues at hand. Though the study is focused on ensuring restitution for survivors, it is also distinctly forward-looking. It is as much about creating conditions that will prevent any group from suffering such losses in the future."