Lord Polak contributions to the Holocaust (Return of Cultural Objects) (Amendment) Act 2019

Thu 9th May 2019 Holocaust (Return of Cultural Objects) (Amendment) Bill (Lords Chamber)
2nd reading (Hansard): House of Lords
3 interactions (651 words)

Holocaust (Return of Cultural Objects) (Amendment) Bill Debate

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Holocaust (Return of Cultural Objects) (Amendment) Bill

(2nd reading (Hansard): House of Lords)
Lord Polak Excerpts
Thursday 9th May 2019

(1 year, 9 months ago)

Lords Chamber

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Lord Wasserman Portrait Lord Wasserman (Con)
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My Lords, I too commend my noble friend Lord Sherbourne of Didsbury for agreeing to steer this short but important Bill through your Lordships’ House.

I do not know about other noble Lords, but I have found that there tends to be an inverse relationship between the length of the Bills we have been asked to consider and their effects. Or is it simply that my perception of these matters has been influenced too much by the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, which, as noble Lords will recall, occupied this House for 160 hours and 44 minutes without, as far as I can tell, having any effect on our long-term relationship with the European Union?

This Bill, per contra, although it consists of only one short substantive clause, will, when it passes into law, as I hope it will do very soon, make an enormous difference to a large number of people, not only in the European Union but throughout the world. As my noble friend Lord Sherbourne has already pointed out in his excellent introduction, there are many ways in which this short Bill will make a difference; some of them are practical, while others are symbolic or presentational. We have already heard from my noble friend how the Bill will send a message to the whole world that this House, and indeed this country, believe strongly that there can never be a statute of limitation on Holocaust crimes—not 10 years, 20 years or 50 years. We will never forget or forgive those responsible for the Holocaust, and we will remember them not only by building memorials to their victims and learning centres to tell the story of their atrocities, but by ensuring that no one ever benefits from their activities, even when these benefits are enjoyed by the public at large through national and local galleries and museums around the world.

If for no other reason but this symbolic one, I believe that the Bill deserves to be passed into law as quickly as possible. But there are also significant practical reasons why we must get it passed into law quickly, and I will discuss them briefly now. Before I do so, however, I must make it clear that before I began preparing for this debate, I knew very little about these matters. However, in the last few days, I have had the benefit of a tutorial from an old friend, Laurie Stein, who happens to be one of a handful of world experts in this field. It is the full-time job of these experts, who work for museums, galleries and private clients around the world, to research the provenance of pictures and other cultural objects which are the subject of claims that they were looted, stolen or otherwise illegitimately taken from their rightful owners during the Nazi regime. I am grateful to Ms Stein for helping me to understand why and how the Bill would make a very significant practical difference to the valuable work which she and others are doing to ensure that cultural objects which were taken illegitimately from innocent Jews and others during the Nazi regime are returned to their rightful owners.

First, although it may be difficult to believe, as some noble Lords have already mentioned, new claims concerning objects stolen and looted by the Nazis are emerging in various parts of the world even now, more than 70 years after the defeat of the Nazis. Even experts like Laurie Stein have been surprised by this. They thought that the flow of contested objects seized by the Nazis would have dried up years ago. But, as I now understand, there are many good reasons why new claims are still being filed. One of these is the fact that only recently have large collections of personal files about victims of the Nazis, held in restitution and compensation offices in Germany and elsewhere, been opened to the public. I understand that these files, which had previously been closed for privacy reasons, contain masses of invaluable information about property seized illegitimately from the victims.

In other cases, the disappearance of family treasures in the 1930s and 1940s was simply unknown to the present generation of family members. Such a situation was the subject of a very moving article in the Jewish Chronicle of 26 April. In it, the granddaughter of noted French art dealer and collector René Gimpel, from whom a collection of major paintings was seized by the Vichy Government during the Second World War—it is now displayed in galleries owned and operated by the present French Government—wrote that he only learned what happened to his grandfather’s collection,

“10 years ago, when a US lawyer working on cases of Second World War spoliation contacted me saying that he keeps finding evidence of paintings stolen from my grandfather. After the war, the family wanted to move on and rebuild itself after the trauma. Like other Jews, they were advised to stop talking about what they’d lost if they wanted to become regular citizens again. I wasn’t even told I was Jewish”.

That is a moving story happening right now.

The other reason why an arbitrary cut-off date for filing claims is inappropriate is that judging claims about disputed objects is very difficult. Although there are many who would like to see these issues in black and white terms, I am assured by Ms Stein that 95% of the evidence adduced for supporting claims about objects seized or looted during the Nazi regime falls into the grey area between black and white and requires meticulous research and a good deal of international travel to ensure that both sides to any claim are treated fairly and justly. It should not surprise anyone to know that such research takes a great deal of time and cannot be rushed to meet arbitrary time limits.

It may be difficult for some people to accept, but the truth is that not every object which might have been in Jewish ownership in Germany, France, Austria or a number of other countries controlled by the Nazis was seized or looted or taken illegitimately. Some were disposed of by their owners for a variety of innocent reasons, reached their present homes entirely legitimately and should be allowed to remain there.

What we must not do is create fresh injustices in an effort to remedy old ones. That is why we must not set arbitrary limits on the time allowed to complete this research. Such limits are unnecessary and inimical to the search for justice. Although this is not relevant to the Bill before us, I want to put on record Ms Stein’s view that the UK’s Spoliation Advisory Panel, which adjudicates on disputed claims, is seen by the experts in this field as a model for how these matters should be handled.

I have gone on long enough. I hope that I have made my point that there are important practical and symbolic reasons why this small Bill should find its way on to the statute book as soon as possible. Although it consists of only one substantive clause, the implications of the Bill for those who seek justice for extraordinary wrongs are immense and will be welcomed as such around the world.

Lord Polak Portrait Lord Polak (Con)
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My Lords, I begin by paying tribute to my noble friend Lord Sherbourne for his leadership and sponsorship of the Bill. In so doing, I also pay tribute to Theresa Villiers. I knew her as an MEP, an MP and a Secretary of State. She is my friend and did an immense job on the Bill. I read carefully the debate of 27 February in the other place. The Bill has wide-ranging support and rightly unites people across the political spectrum. I note what was said at the time regarding the inclusion of the sunset clause although, like the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, if I am totally honest, I am not entirely clear why it was included in the original Bill in 2009. Perhaps the verse in Exodus which says that if you take your neighbour’s cloak, as a pledge, you must return it by sunset, played a part.

I would perhaps cite a different verse from Deuteronomy, where there is a specific biblical imperative of returning lost articles with no time limit. Putting a time limit on the delivery of justice because it may be difficult to provide relevant evidence to prove claims is not, I maintain, a good argument for maintaining the sunset clause. I therefore entirely agree with the essence of the Bill.

Last week was Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day in the Hebrew calendar. As it is every year, it was commemorated at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. I noted the speech of Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel. He spoke out about the heroism of the many people who saved others in that dark, dark time in history. However, he also spoke about the shooting in the Chabad synagogue in San Diego and the shameful anti-Semitic cartoon published two days earlier in the New York Times. Noble Lords who have visited Yad Vashem will no doubt recall displays in the early section of the museum of, sadly, very similar cartoons from the 1930s. We are in danger of watching history repeat itself, which is why we should not put time limits on the ability to seek justice.

That is why I am honoured to be a trustee of the Holocaust Memorial Charitable Trust. I pay tribute to David Cameron and Theresa May for their outstanding leadership in ensuring that the UK finally has the national Holocaust Memorial and Learning Centre just next door—a project ably led by Ed Balls and my noble friend Lord Pickles. Clearly, it was not politicised. If the House will allow it, I want to put on public record that no one has done, continues to do and, I guess, will do in the future more for the issues that concern the Jewish community than my noble friend Lord Pickles. Again, for those who have been to Yad Vashem, there is nothing more powerful than the rows of trees in the Avenue of the Righteous, where each tree represents a righteous gentile who stood up to be counted and saved fellow human beings who were Jewish, at huge risk to themselves and their families. I cannot possibly begin to list the things my noble friend has done and continues to do but, today, I hope he will permit me to call him my noble and righteous friend.

As has been said, the Holocaust Memorial and Learning Centre next door will act as a constant reminder of the unique responsibilities of politicians. Some argue that the structure could encourage more anti-Semitism, but it is precisely that argument that proves we need it urgently. Does the Minister agree that the Bill is timely as it sets no time limit for the rectification of wrong? In the same way, does he agree that it is timely for the Holocaust Memorial and Learning Centre to be a focal point at the heart of our democracy and, to quote the Prime Minister, to be a memorial that,

“will stand to preserve the truth forever”?

Baroness Ludford Portrait Baroness Ludford (LD)
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My Lords, I also thank the sponsors of the Bill, as well as those of the original Act.

In addressing the Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets just over 20 years ago, the then US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, thanked the then British Foreign Secretary, the sadly late Robin Cook, and the British Government for having convened the landmark 1997 London Conference on Nazi Gold. The UK can take some pride in its leading role in Holocaust restitution and its recognition of the need to maintain that lead. In 1998, Madeleine Albright talked about the “overarching imperatives” driving the work of Holocaust restitution: justice, openness and that,

“the obligation to seek truth and act on it is not the burden of some, but of all; it is universal”.

That is why I am speaking in this debate, having no material or family interest in the subject but a strong interest in the universal upholding of truth, justice and respect.

At the second London conference in 2017, organised by DCMS and sponsored by the Commission for Looted Art in Europe, the very welcome aim of extending the timeframe for the 2009 Act was announced. As the then director of the Tate, Sir Nicholas Serota, said,

“there is a strong moral case to remove the ‘sunset’ clause … It is important that potential claimants should not feel that the door is being slammed in their face”.

I join other noble Lords who are somewhat puzzled by the original justification for the sunset clause because it is pretty thin. My noble friend Lord Palmer cited the problem of evidence deteriorating over the years. While that is true, it is not a terribly good reason. I therefore agree with other noble Lords, including the noble Lords, Lord Polak and Lord Wasserman.

I also strongly agree with David Lewis who, as co-chair of the Commission for Looted Art in Europe, said in 2017:

“It is, in our view, totally unacceptable that such matters as statutes of limitation and other legal restraints continue to impede restitution”.

Hence, I strongly support this Bill.

Mention has been made of Anne Webber, another co-chair of the Commission for Looted Art in Europe. She told the 2017 London conference:

“Although many of the Holocaust survivors are now passing away, their children and heirs still urgently seek the transparency, accountability and justice that was promised”.

Of course, the word “justice” crops up frequently.

I got a little involved in the topic of Holocaust restitution by other EU countries when I was an MEP for London, trying to assist constituents in dealing with Governments and institutions in other EU countries. In my case it largely involved dealing with the countries of central and eastern Europe, which around 2004 were newly acceding to the EU. There the issue was somewhat complicated by the post-war communist nationalisation and reallocation of property but, even so, a considerable smokescreen and lack of will was unfortunately evident.

Mr David Lewis, whom I have just quoted, after noting that he was often asked why it had taken so many decades for this matter to be addressed, said that,

“it is a sombre fact that in a high proportion of those countries”,

which attended the 1998 Washington conference,

“little progress has been made since”.

Some effort has been made by the EU to advance matters, but not enough. In 2009, some 47 countries, including all 28 EU member states, came together to support the Terezin Declaration to accelerate restitution, and the following year 43 countries endorsed a set of guidelines and best practices. However, many countries are not on track. One could cite Croatia and Latvia, where the relevant legislation has been delayed, while in Romania the processing of claims and payments has been extremely slow. In Hungary the discussions continue and, as the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, said, Poland sadly has one of the worst records on the restitution of private property and has even backtracked on some of the commitments made at the 2009 Terezin conference. In 2009 I wrote in response to a constituent saying:

“The European Union has done little to push this matter on the grounds that property issues are a national responsibility, but personally I feel that it is a human rights matter which merits EU action”.

A few months ago a European Parliament resolution noted how litigants continue to encounter legal problems owing inter alia to expiration of post-war restitution laws, the non-retroactivity of conventional norms—I guess that means laws—the lack of any definition of “looted art”, statute of limitations provisions on claims or the provisions on adverse possession and good faith; that is, good faith on the part of the new owner. However, as my noble friend Lord Palmer mentioned, that can be assessed. The Parliament urged the European Commission to create a comprehensive database of looted art, including Holocaust objects, and the status of existing claims, and to support provenance research, including financially.

Perhaps in conclusion the Minister could tell us about the scope for better pan-European co-operation in encouraging the location of looted property and the unblocking of delays and obstacles. If we stay in the EU, no doubt the UK will be better placed to urge a greater sense of action and responsibility throughout the EU.

I conclude with another quote from Madeleine Albright, all too relevant today as we see examples of hate and hostility, including anti-Semitism, worryingly on the rise:

“I think of the blood that is in my family veins. Does it matter what kind of blood it is? It shouldn’t; it is just blood that does its job. But it mattered to Hitler and that matters to us all; because that is why 6 million Jews died”.

As the Holocaust cries out to us, we must never allow distinctions among the peoples of the world to obscure the common humanity that binds us all as people. Restitution of Holocaust-era assets is about much more than gold, art and insurance. It is about remembering that no one’s blood is less or more precious than our own.