June 29, 2009 / 5:46 PM / in 9 years

Czech institute to help recover Jewish property

PRAGUE, June 29 (Reuters) - Forty six countries have backed the foundation of an institute aiming to track the return of Jewish art and property stolen by the Nazis, the Czech EU presidency said on Monday.

A former Nazi concentration camp in the northern Czech town of Terezin, or Theresienstadt in German, will host the European Shoah Legacy Institute, a body that will monitor restitution claims by survivors of the Holocaust.

The Nazis confiscated hundreds of thousands of pieces of art and religious objects from Jews and other victims.

"There remain substantial issues to be addressed, because only a part of the confiscated property has been recovered or compensated," a declaration establishing the institute said.

The declaration follows up on principles from the 1998 Washington Conference organised to create a platform for retrieving Nazi-seized property.

Under the Washington Principles, countries agreed to identify stolen art, open up archives, publicise suspicious cases and "achieve a just and fair solution" for the Nazi-persecuted pre-war owners or their heirs.

Those behind the declaration believe publishing achievements and positive examples could push countries to do more.

"It is the first... declaration ever in which there is an institutional follow-up mechanism," Stuart Eizenstat, head of the U.S. delegation, told a news conference in Prague.

"(It is) an institute in which there is a centralised repository database where all developments related to the Holocaust ... (and) new recovery developments can be placed."

The European Union pledged its support in a joint statement by the Czech EU presidency and the European Commission.

It is hard to estimate the value of artworks and real estate seized by the Nazis. One reason is that it is hard to legally define the property itself.

Jews were sometimes forced to sell their assets to Nazis to fund day-to-day living and some say in cases where original owners received money it was a legally valid transaction.

It is also hard to trace the provenance of pieces of art and prove ownership.

Eizenstat said he estimated the value of all European Jewish assets in 1939 among 6 million people was around $15 billion at that time "which would probably be 10 times that much today."

He said the percentage of recovery has been "very tiny" compared to what was taken, and much of the recovered property was "symbolic".

Terezin was a transit point for Nazi victims who were then moved on to death camps in Auschwitz and Treblinka in Poland, and others. (Reporting by Jana Mlcochova; editing by Robert Woodward)

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