Speech by J. Kohout, Deputy Prime Minister of the Czech Republic at the Plenary Session of the Holocaust Era Assets Conference

Ministers, Excellencies, distinguished participants, ladies and gentlemen,

I am pleased to welcome you on behalf of the Government of the Czech Republic to the Holocaust Assets Era Conference in Prague and Terezín.

Eleven years ago, representatives of forty-two countries met in Washington at a groundbreaking conference which paved the way for many activities benefiting Holocaust survivors and other victims of Nazi tyranny from Central and Eastern Europe. Until that time they had almost no access to any form of compensation.

These eleven years did not, and could not, bring comprehensive reparation; however, they did at least partly alleviate the consequences of the wrongs caused by the Holocaust. I am very pleased to welcome all those who have worked to move ahead with the process started in Washington, and who also greatly assisted us in preparing this conference. Let me mention at least one of them – Ambassador Eizenstat.

We are meeting here to review the work we have done in recent years and, above all, to identify the areas where we should increase our efforts. And, as the survivors are advancing in age, we must keep in mind that this conference should bring prompt as well as tangible results as a sound basis for follow-up activities.

Ladies and gentlemen,

While we do have our own memorials to the holocaust here in the Czech Republic, I should mention that, as you certainly know, that we are hosting this conference in our capacity as Presidency of the Council of the European Union. In this context, let me make just a brief remark about Europe.

Somebody said, quite fittingly, that Europe was founded on the Sinai and Golgotha on the one hand, and on the Athens Acropolis and Ancient Rome Capitol on the other.

The first Czechoslovak president, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, said that a state is upheld by the ideas on which it is founded. This can also be said of the European Union, which was founded on the idea of promoting peace and stability on a continent that still had a vivid memory of two world wars and the horrors of the Holocaust. This terrible experience cost millions and millions of human lives and underscored the urgent need for the peace which we are now able to enjoy. Indeed, today we Europeans can almost take peace for granted. Perhaps even too much so. And we tend to forget that our history is also the history of wartime atrocities and the intolerable sufferings of the victims of the Nazis. It was their legacy that has in fact brought European states together again. And what today obliges us to take action – an action oriented towards the past, to benefit the victims and survivors, as well as towards the future, to benefit young people.
For this very reason the Czech Republic considers it necessary at this conference to underline the European dimension – the European Union’s shared responsibility and readiness to increase its role in Holocaust education and research, in caring for the survivors as well as in care for memorials in what had been concentration camps. That is, in areas which today are primarily the responsibility of states, the international community and non-governmental organizations. I do not believe that Europe is using its capacities to the full in these areas.

For the same reason, the Czech Republic decided to initiate the establishment of the European Institute for the Legacy of the Shoa in Terezín. The institute would provide a platform for exchange of information and experience, as well as specific support for national initiatives and projects designed primarily for holocaust victims in the key areas I have mentioned. It will be a visible step and a clear signal in the fight against racism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism. The European Commission’s signature under the declaration which will be signed here in a few minutes will reinforce this, as does the support shown by many states and non-governmental organizations during preparations for this conference. The institute will be set up in the very near future, so that about this time next year we should see the first results of its mission as outlined in the Terezín Declaration. And I want to use this opportunity to invite you all to cooperate actively with the institute, which will be open to everybody – individuals, non-governmental organizations, as well as governments and European and international institutions. We look forward to your suggestions and cooperation.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The Prague Conference is not only about Europe and the legacy of the Shoa. It is primarily about very specific questions and answers in areas such as care for the survivors, Holocaust education and research, immovable property, looted art and Jewish cultural property and Judaica. These issues have been discussed by experts, non-governmental organizations and states. Today we will hear the results. I would only remind us all that we must turn the recommendations into reality quickly, without too much red tape, to make them as efficient as possible.

This is what we have been trying to do in the Czech Republic, and this is how we have managed to help the victims as far as we can. One proof of this is the 130 million Euros distributed so far to Nazi victims in the Czech Republic. Of this sum, almost 100 million Euros went to social welfare, either in the form of lump-sum compensations and various benefits, or in the form of elderly care services provided free of charge. When the Czech Government in 1998 decided to take an active part in the international process of dealing with the consequences of the Holocaust, we included in our policy statement a commitment to address the property-related claims of individuals and Jewish communities that had not been settled earlier. And that commitment has been followed by real results. Communal property restitutions have made tangible progress and a Foundation for Holocaust Victims has been created to provide at least symbolic compensation to certain individuals. There has been a marked improvement in Holocaust education, largely thanks to cooperation with the International Task Force for the Holocaust.

However, it cannot be denied that despite efforts to put into place a comprehensive policy embracing individual restitutions too, we are still hampered by complex legislation which in some cases poses problems in restitution processes and research work. We hope that in this respect too we will be able to take steps to ensure that the Czech Republic remains fully able to comply with the principles of the Washington Conference as regards, for example, restitutions of art confiscated or looted by the Nazis.

And I welcome this opportunity to express our special thanks, respect and admiration to the survivors. You have been a great help and support in preparing this conference. The expert conclusions you have drawn up together with the experts and non-governmental organizations will be one of the most important outcomes of this conference, together with the Terezín Declaration. I know that some of you have travelled far to be here with us today – once again, welcome and thank you.

I also thank Mr. Miloš Pojar and members of the organizing committee, representatives of the European Commission and all states who have actively contributed to the preparation and success of the conference – above all, the Friends of Chair.

Now, before signing the Declaration between the European Commission and the Czech Republic, let me return to the Terezín Declaration. Yesterday the experts reached an agreement on its text, and I would like to express my gratitude to the representatives of 46 states that approved the Terezín Declaration as well as to the Holy See and Serbia that participated as observers. I am pleased to say that the Declaration will be officially announced by the Czech Prime Minister at tomorrow’s concluding ceremony in Terezín.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Thank you for your attention. And thank you all for attending the Prague Conference.

Last update: 16.8.2011 15:17

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