Nearly 80 years on, the fight for Holocaust restitution continues in many countries

Mark Weitzman, who helped develop the now ubiquitous IHRA definition of antisemitism, is gearing up to meet European officials this week to negotiate reparations for survivors

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Mark Weitzman, chief operating officer of the World Jewish Restitution Organization in the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, in an undated photograph. (WJRO)
Mark Weitzman, chief operating officer of the World Jewish Restitution Organization in the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, in an undated photograph. (WJRO)

Nearly 80 years after the end of World War II, the work of reclaiming the property stolen from Jews during and after the Holocaust is only just beginning in many countries.

Indeed, only this month did Croatia agree to research the provenance of government-owned art in order to determine if it had been seized from Jews by Croatian fascists — the first step of several before rightful owners may be compensated.

The organization leading these efforts in Eastern Europe is the World Jewish Restitution Organization, an Israeli-registered nonprofit that began its operations in the early 1990s.

“The WJRO came about as a result of the fall of the Iron Curtain,” Mark Weitzman, the current chief operating officer of the WJRO, told The Times of Israel last week in the lounge of his hotel in Jerusalem.

“Countries that had been behind the Iron Curtain — Poland, Hungary, former Yugoslavia, the Baltics — for the first time had been able to be treated as democratic individual countries. That changed the situation. Before then there could be no real discussion of the issue in those countries,”

Weitzman, who has worked in the field of Holocaust research for decades, is in Israel this month for meetings with Israeli officials, notably President Isaac Herzog and representatives from the Foreign Ministry, as well as officials from Yad Vashem and Holocaust survivor support organizations.

Later this week, Weitzman will travel to the Czech Republic, to the city of Terezin, home to one of the most infamous ghettos during the Holocaust, for a conference with representatives from dozens of European countries to discuss Holocaust restitution — where the situation stands today and how to progress the issue in the future.

“The issue of property restitution is important and is currently in serious trouble due to the war in Ukraine and [the lack of] global attention. There’s a view that 80 years have passed, so why do we have to make progress with this justice,” Herzog said during the meeting with Weitzman at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem.

A delegation preparing to travel to the Czech Republic for a conference on Holocaust restitution pose for a photograph with President Isaac Herzog, front-center-right, at the President’s Residence on October 30, 2022. (Foreign Ministry)

Secretary General of the WJRO Colette Avital, a long-time Israeli ambassador, said the organization intended to demand that governments “take concrete steps and make plans of action that will ease and speed up the restitution of property.”

The Times of Israel sat down with Weitzman to discuss his ongoing work, the politics of Holocaust restitution, and his previous work as chairman of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance committee, whose definition of antisemitism has — to his great surprise — become the standard around the world.

How restitution happens

The most significant Holocaust restitution agreement — the Reparations Agreement between Israel and the Federal Republic of Germany — was negotiated in 1952 and went into effect the following year. The highly contentious agreement included payments both to the State of Israel, which at the time was in the midst of resettling many survivors of the Holocaust, and to individual survivors through the so-called Claims Conference.

Efforts to reclaim Jewish property stolen and seized during the Holocaust continued in the decades following the war across Europe, save for in those countries that were part of the former Soviet Union, which were not part of Western restitution efforts.

Following the fall of the Iron Curtain in the early 1990s, the WJRO was formed to negotiate with each Eastern European country individually in order to get compensation for the Jews whose homes and property were stolen, and in many cases nationalized, during and after the war.

This generally consisted of estimating the value of stolen Jewish property, negotiating an agreement with the country, and then establishing a fund with the agreed-upon sum run by that country’s Jewish community.

Smashed and dilapidated graves at the old Jewish cemetery in Kaunas, Lithuania, July 2019 (Raphael Ahren/Times of Israel)

“In some of the countries, like in Poland or Lithuania, we’ve established foundations with the Jewish community where we’re partners with the Jewish community. It goes to different places,” Weitzman said. “Obviously the first priority is survivors and their needs. Some of it goes to education and Holocaust remembrance. And those foundations decide what their priorities are and what projects to fund.”

These talks can take decades to complete due to the difficulty in tracing provenance and getting countries to agree to compensate survivors and their heirs, the overwhelming majority of whom would no longer be living in the country, having moved to Israel or elsewhere in the aftermath of the war.

Negotiations are still ongoing with Hungary, for instance, and appear to have hit a wall, according to Weitzman.

“We’re in the middle of an issue with Hungary right now,” he said. “The Hungarian government had agreed with the WJRO that there should be an evaluation by experts [regarding compensation amounts]. We came back with the expert evaluation of how much had been lost. We came to them last fall with a figure — we knew it was a high figure — to begin negotiations. The Hungarians said that it was high and that they’d get back to us. And we’ve been waiting for them to get back to us for over a year now.”

The talks with Croatia, which had a minor breakthrough earlier this month, took some 15 years before the government and WJRO were able to complete the initial list of property looted from Jews and others by the Croatian fascist group the Ustaše, during and immediately following the Holocaust. Property was subsequently seized and nationalized by the country’s communist government.

A religious service is held at the memorial center for tens of thousands of people killed in death camps run by Croatia’s pro-Nazi puppet state in WWII, in Jasenovac, Croatia, Friday, April 12, 2019. (Associated Press)

“That’s only one step. It doesn’t deal with any larger issues. But it’s a first step, it’s a positive step,” Weitzman said.

Not all talks take nearly as long, however.

“With Luxembourg, we concluded an agreement very easily. The whole thing was wrapped up in about six months,” Weitzman said. “Luxembourg is a major success story.”

The conference in Terezin that is scheduled for later this week, from Wednesday to Friday, is designed to reinvigorate some of the stagnant negotiations, Weitzman explained.

It is the second such conference in the Czech city, with the first taking place in 2009, roughly a decade after some of the first restitution negotiations began in Eastern Europe.

“Things had been quietly chugging along and then the first Terezin Conference was meant to bring together different countries to regain some momentum on a political level and establish some commitments and getting everyone on the same page for going forward,” Weitzman said.

“Terezin II is an attempt to update that, to make sure that this issue stays on the agenda and to hopefully come up with some new commitments — these aren’t laws, they’re political commitments from countries — of what they are going to do in the next few years,” he said.

Weitzman sees the work of Holocaust restitution as a never-ending effort.

“If we narrowly define restitution as getting social welfare for survivors and heirs, then yes, you can say that the work will eventually be completed. But one of the things that is important to me is that I’m committed to the facts of what happened, to making sure that they are out there as accurately as historically possible, and that kind of work will continue,” he said.

Speaking of the types of phenomena that he hopes to fight with his work at the WJRO, Weitzman cited Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s claims that his invasion of Ukraine was aimed at “denazifying” the country, as well as anti-vaccination activists during the coronavirus pandemic donning a yellow star to draw comparisons to the Holocaust.

“All that Holocaust distortion is becoming mainstream. Combating that is something that we need to keep doing,” he said.

The politics of restitution

According to Weitzman, one of the most potent forces supporting his organization’s work is the involvement of the Israeli and American governments, which can bring diplomatic weight to the cause.

“The prime minister of Israel, Yair Lapid, and the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, are both essentially children of Holocaust survivors. Blinken’s stepfather was a survivor, and Blinken was very close to him and he’s spoken about him often. We know that this is an issue that’s personal and political for both countries,” Weitzman said.

In the case of Croatia, for instance, the breakthrough in the negotiations came after a top-level meeting between Croatian and American leaders.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (left) meets with Prime Minister Yair Lapid in Jerusalem, July 13, 2022. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

“Croatia and the US had a strategic dialogue meeting last spring in Washington. Holocaust restitution was on the agenda. That has to have had an impact,” he said.

At the same time, Weitzman acknowledged that sometimes geopolitical considerations can get in the way of his organization’s efforts.

Perhaps the most obvious case of this was with Poland in 2018, when then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a joint statement with the Polish government that was seen by Holocaust researchers, including those at Israel’s own Yad Vashem, as whitewashing Polish involvement in the genocide and distorting history.

Poland has long had a complicated relationship with its Holocaust legacy, including as it relates to restitution. Last year, it passed a law setting a 30-year deadline for Jews to recover property seized by Nazi German forces, essentially preventing any World War II-era compensation claims or appeals of past decisions. This, along with other Holocaust-related legislation and measures by Poland’s right-wing government, have caused major strains in its relationship with Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) with Polish president Andrzej Duda at the United Nations on September 26, 2018. (Avi Ohayon/GPO)

“I was at Yad Vashem the day Netanyahu’s Poland thing was announced. I was sitting next to Yehuda Bauer,” Weitzman said, referring to a famed Israeli Holocaust researcher who was one of the fiercest critics of the statement.

“Restitution is broadly supported. Is it always a top priority? No. Other issues are other issues. There are times that a vote in the UN is more important or a defense agreement is more important. But long-term, restitution is part of the political landscape of Israel and the US. Part of our responsibility is keeping it there,” he said.

In addition to the geopolitical disagreements that can arise in discussions about Holocaust restitution, internal fights often arise within the Jewish communities receiving the funds, with different parts of the communities expecting a share.

Sometimes there are discussions where voices are raised, but we try to put everyone on the same page

“In those Jewish communities, you can have people who are not even part of the original community, people who migrated from further east or people who just found themselves there after the war,” Weitzman said. “You have the original inhabitants who might just be a tiny minority at this point. You have survivors who are in Israel, survivors who aren’t in Israel. There are Jewish communal organizations.

“All these are factors that we try to take into account and we try to represent them all as faithfully as we can. And yeah, sometimes there are discussions where voices are raised, but we try to put everyone on the same page… Our mission is to create the frameworks with the governments to help the survivors and — broad strokes — to carry out educational activities,” he said.

The IHRA definition goes global

Weitzman joined the WJRO last year, following a nearly four-decade career at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a right-leaning organization that focuses on Holocaust research and tracking modern-day antisemitism. Weitzman, a lifelong New Yorker and scholar of right-wing extremism, was in the running for the antisemitism special envoy position in Democrat Joe Biden’s administration, ultimately losing out to Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt.

While in his role at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, but officially representing the US State Department, Weitzman was an active member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, a group formed in 1998 that brought together government officials and researchers to commemorate, study and educate people about the Holocaust.

Relatively early on, the organization ran into issues of terminology: What specifically was Holocaust denial? What was Holocaust distortion? What was antisemitism?

“The genesis of these definitions was so that we would all be on the same page,” Weitzman said.

A sign for an anti-antisemitism campaign, New York City, August 12, 2021. (Luke Tress/Flash90)

Developing working definitions for these different terms each took several years, beginning with Holocaust denial and distortion.

“The next step was the antisemitism definition. That took about three-four years,” Weitzman said.

The “non-legally binding working definition of antisemitism,” as it’s formally known, is a scant 40 words: “Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”

IHRA included with it examples of antisemitism, such as calling for killing Jews, Holocaust denial and accusing Jews of being disloyal. Somewhat more contentiously, however, the examples also include various criticisms of Israel and Zionism, such as denying Jews the right to self-determination, opposing Israel’s status as the nation-state of the Jewish people, comparing the actions of Israel to those of the Nazis, and using antisemitic tropes — such as blood libels — to characterize Israel and Israelis.

According to Weitzman, the working definition was initially intended for internal use.

“At that point, we thought that we had something that just IHRA would use, but then the UK adopted it,” he said.

It shocked me. I’m very surprised. We didn’t expect that at all. At the time, IHRA was not a major international organization. Who’d heard of IHRA 10 years ago?

That was in December 2016. Nearly six years later, over three dozen countries have adopted the IHRA definition, along with most US states and hundreds of other government bodies around the world. Most recently, the German airline Lufthansa formally adopted the IHRA antisemitism definition, following an antisemitic incident on one of its flights in which all visibly Jewish passengers were removed after some of them refused to wear face masks.

Inside the Lufthansa flight to Frankfurt, Orthodox Jewish men pray in the back of the plane. (Courtesy via JTA)

The IHRA definition is now the most widespread formal designation of antisemitism around the world.

“It shocked me. I’m very surprised. We didn’t expect that at all. At the time, IHRA was not a major international organization. Who’d heard of IHRA 10 years ago?” Weitzman said.

“The IHRA definition was meant for people who were not necessarily Jewish, who were not necessarily experts in the field, who were dealing with the issue [of antisemitism] and needed something they could turn to help them decide if something was antisemitic or not. Another issue, a separate issue, is what do you do with it then.

“We didn’t make a prescription of what you should do in every case. As a matter of fact, one of the things that IHRA said is that context matters. There’s been a lot of misconceptions about IHRA, on all sides,” he said.

It was a tool that met a specific need at a specific time. And it’s become invaluable.

Indeed, the IHRA definition has ruffled some feathers since its widespread introduction, particularly the aspects of it that deal with criticism of Israel, which some opponents see as stifling debate about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict rather than preventing hate speech.

In response to these issues, there have been attempts to come up with a different definition of antisemitism that would not involve Israel.

Though nowhere near as widespread as the IHRA definition, one such effort was the so-called Jerusalem Declaration, crafted by predominantly left-leaning researchers and public figures, which was released last year. It includes proscribing the use of antisemitic stereotypes and tropes in discussions of Israel, but explicitly notes that pro-boycott movements are not “in and of themselves antisemitic.”

“I’m thrilled that the Jerusalem definition exists in the sense that I am really glad that IHRA spurred a group of academics to look more closely at the definition of antisemitism. That serves IHRA’s purpose,” Weitzman said.

Weitzman said that the IHRA definition has since grown far beyond its original intention.

“We never had the assumption that people would be put in prison for quote-unquote violating IHRA. You can’t violate IHRA. It’s not a law. It’s not codified. When I see that language, it’s just absurd. People who use it that way have no idea what they’re talking about,” he said.

At the same time, Weitzman said he understood that there was a need for the type of clear-cut designation of antisemitism that the IHRA definition offered.

“I think it was a tool that met a specific need at a specific time. And it’s become invaluable. I’m very proud of the role that I played in introducing it and getting it off the ground,” he said.

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