GUEST VOICE: Why I’m speaking up for Holocaust restitution

Hank Rosenbaum

Elie Wiesel once said that “the opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.” For far too long, the failure of governments to secure restitution for Holocaust survivors has been a story of indifference in the face of injustice.

This week, as a survivor and proud Jewish Canadian, I am doing my part to fight indifference. I will be travelling to Ottawa with several other survivors from the Canadian Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Descendants, as well as Jewish community leaders from across Canada, in a delegation organized by the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA). We will be meeting with ambassadors from various European countries to push for rightful – and long overdue – restitution for victims of the Shoah.

It’s estimated that 14,000 to 16,000 Holocaust survivors live in Canada, home to the third-largest survivor community in the world. While many receive remarkable support from family members and community institutions, others struggle quietly to make ends meet and enjoy their senior years in comfort and dignity. In Israel, for example, it’s believed that one in four of the country’s 193,000 survivors lives in poverty. Their average age is 85. Approximately half are widowed. About 13,000 pass away every year.

These are the most vulnerable among the Jewish People, and as a community, we should not be indifferent, since justice – in the form of rightful restitution – continues to elude many of them. Even 70 years after the liberation of Auschwitz, countless Jewish homes, businesses, and properties seized by the Nazis or collaborators have not been returned to their former owners, nor have many survivors and their families received compensation for their losses.

This injustice was the basis for the Terezin Declaration on Holocaust Era Assets, which was approved by 46 countries in 2009, including Canada. It calls for just and fair solutions regarding the status of private, communal and heirless property stolen from Jews during World War II. It demands that relevant governments “make every effort to provide for the restitution of former Jewish communal and religious property,” and further calls for expeditious compensation for those victims and their heirs who lost private property during the Holocaust.

As Canadians, we can be proud that our country played a key role in drafting the Terezin Declaration, just as Canada welcomed some 40,000 survivors after the war. In keeping with this legacy, all three major federal political parties reiterated their support for restitution this past March. Strong statements issued by Foreign Affairs Minister Rob Nicholson as well as Foreign Affairs Critics Paul Dewar (NDP) and Marc Garneau (Liberal) affirm that, far from being a partisan issue, this is a matter of justice and fairness.

Canada’s voice carries weight on the world stage, and Canada’s Jewish community – one of the world’s largest and most dynamic – can likewise speak up and demonstrate that survivors are not alone. This is why we will be in Ottawa this week, alongside the World Jewish Restitution Organization, to urge ambassadors from various countries to press their governments to secure restitution for former citizens who lost property during the Holocaust. This intensive series of discussions with representatives from the European Union, Romania, Bosnia, Croatia, and Serbia will be followed up by subsequent meetings between CIJA and the ambassador of Poland.

In the above countries, restitution laws are non-existent or have failed to achieve timely compensation for victims. As a case in point, Poland, once home to three million Jews, has no restitution law regarding private real property that was seized and later kept by the Communist regime. This is just one example of how, for many survivors, the chaos of the Shoah and the subsequent darkness of the Iron Curtain have left them with no means of securing compensation.

That the past cannot be changed does not absolve us of our responsibility to survivors today, who deserve nothing less than a small measure of justice for their losses. 

Hank Rosenbaum is co-president of the Canadian Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Descendants.