Opening photo: Lit candles are a symbol of International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
By Deborah Guido-O’Grady
In his first public remarks as secretary of state, Antony Blinken put the world on notice that resolving remaining Holocaust issues was high on his agenda.
“It’s no accident that people who seek to create instability and undermine democracy often try to cast doubt on the Holocaust,” he said during an International Remembrance Day video, January 27. “That’s why it’s so important that we speak the truth about the past, to protect the facts when others try to distort or trivialize Holocaust crimes. [It’s important] to seek justice for the survivors and their families.”
It’s a challenge that the small office of the Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues (SEHI) in the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs is honored to accept.
Whether it’s facilitating landmark international agreements, hosting trans-Atlantic dialogues with Holocaust educators, or combatting Holocaust distortion and denial, SEHI continues to pursue a measure of justice for Holocaust survivors. SEHI also strives to promote historically accurate Holocaust remembrance, research, and education activities around the world.
“The Biden Administration in its first months has already shown its clear support, carrying on the bipartisan tradition that SEHI has had from the start,” explained Special Envoy Cherrie Daniels. “We owe it to those who were murdered or suffered in the Holocaust and Roma genocide to remember the horrific atrocities committed by the Nazi regime and their accomplices, and to teach the lessons of the Holocaust to future generations so that such repugnant acts of evil never occur again.”
Since its establishment in 1999 at the behest of Ambassador Stuart Eizenstat, SEHI’s primary focus has been seeking restitution. Although the office does not represent individual cases, it works with Holocaust survivor stakeholder groups and NGOs to secure new restitution agreements, return or seek compensation for confiscated property and artwork, and boost welfare support for survivors.
The backdrop for SEHI’s work is that, since the end of World War II (WWII), the United States has played a crucial leadership role securing restitution or compensation agreements for property confiscated by the Nazis and their collaborators from 1933 to 1945 or subsequently nationalized by the Communist governments of Central and Eastern Europe. Achieving a measure of justice is not just about the past: a successful property restitution program is an indicator of the effectiveness of the rule of law in a country, and non-discriminatory, effective property laws are of crucial importance to a healthy market economy. In addition to many landmark agreements negotiated or facilitated by SEHI since its inception, the current team engaged with the government of Luxembourg to advocate for the historic restitution framework agreement concluded in January 2021 between Luxembourg, its Jewish community, and the World Jewish Restitution Organization.
The unfathomable amount of restitution work still waiting is reflected in a 2020 report to Congress on what 46 countries have and have not yet done to meet the commitments they made when they endorsed the 2009 Terezin Declaration at the Prague Holocaust Era Assets Conference.
“SEHI was tasked by Congress in the Justice for Uncompensated Survivors Today (JUST) Act of 2017 to elucidate where progress has been made and where work remains,” said Daniels.
Written in tandem with 46 U.S. Missions around the world, the JUST Act report documents the efforts by foreign governments to return or provide compensation for stolen property. Whether the property is private, communal/religious, or heirless, and movable (such as art and literary or historical materials relating to Judaism known as Judaica) or immovable (such as buildings, land, or cemeteries), these foreign governments are working to return this property to families and communities that were nearly annihilated in the Holocaust. The report also covers foreign governments’ efforts to promote Holocaust remembrance, establish memorial sites, enhance public access to archives, and promote historically accurate Holocaust education for future generations.
Daniels and her predecessor were aided in this historic undertaking by the office’s Foreign and Civil Service officers, augmented by two retired Foreign Service officers and an eligible family member.
With the JUST Act report completed, the office returns to encouraging countries to fulfill their Terezin Declaration commitments.
“There are still so many cases of confiscated, uncompensated property to resolve,” said Daniels. “We are running out of time as the brave generation of survivors is passing.”
Although much work remains in countries of the former Warsaw Pact and constituent parts of the former Soviet Union, countries in Western Europe also continue to take additional steps toward justice. These efforts are evidenced by the 2021 Luxembourg agreement and recent improvements to the Dutch art restitution policy.
Daniels and the SEHI team have emphasized support for Holocaust education around the world, and promote historically accurate Holocaust remembrance, research, and the opening of Holocaust-era archives.
“We have seen the danger of what can happen when hatred goes unchecked,” she explained. “The opportunity through Holocaust education is to create [an] understanding of not just what happened but how it could have happened, and to use that knowledge and understanding to prevent mass atrocities in the future.”
SEHI is active in international bodies charged with protecting the history of the Holocaust and confronting Holocaust distortion, an emerging trend closely intertwined with the global rise in anti-Semitism. The special envoy leads the U.S. delegation to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), a 34-member organization that plays a pivotal role in Holocaust remembrance and has published guidelines for global policymakers on their role in recognizing and confronting Holocaust distortion whenever and wherever it rises. The IHRA in 2019 published landmark “Recommendations for Teaching and Learning about the Holocaust,” which have been translated into multiple languages.
This year, SEHI also serves as the chair of the International Commission of the International Tracing Service, a treaty body of 11 countries that oversee the Arolsen Archives in Bad Arolsen, Germany. Those archives house the WWII-era International Tracing Service records on 17.5 million individual Jewish and non-Jewish victims of Nazi persecution. The archives were instrumental in reuniting families and displaced people after the war and continue to be a major resource for research and education.
“The historical facts about the Holocaust need to be protected, honored, and conveyed to future generations,” said Daniels.
To bolster its outreach on Holocaust education, SEHI teamed up with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum to host two “Trans-Atlantic Dialogue” webinars in November 2020 and March 2021 for American and European educators teaching about the Holocaust during challenging times. SEHI also is partnering with the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs in a series of International Visitor Leadership Programs on demand and providing toolkit materials on the Holocaust for American Spaces around the world.
The United States is vigilant in calling out individuals and governments who cynically and deliberately distort and manipulate the facts of the Holocaust to further their own political agendas.
“When the facts and the history of WWII and the Holocaust are so frequently politicized and relativized around the world, and when lies spread so quickly through social media and other platforms,” Daniels explained, “a focus on combating distortion and denial seems particularly timely.”
SEHI partnered with the Department of State’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor and the Office of the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism in April 2021 to host its annual National Day of Remembrance. This commemoration was watched by Department employees and at U.S. Missions around the world, along with the foreign diplomatic corps in Washington. The virtual event focused on countering Holocaust distortion and featured Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs Acting Assistant Secretary Philip Reeker along with Holocaust survivor Irene Weiss, international experts, members of Congress, and foreign officials.
Referring to the estimated 6 million Jews, and millions of other innocent victims—Roma and Sinti, Slavs, individuals with disabilities, LGBTQ+ individuals, and others—systematically murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators, President Joe Biden emphasized in his 2021 Presidential Proclamation on the Days of Remembrance of Victims of the Holocaust the need for continued vigilance.
“All of us must understand the depravity that is possible when governments back policies fueled by hatred, when we dehumanize groups of people, and when ordinary people decide that it is easier to look away or go along than to speak out,” said Biden. “Our children and grandchildren must learn where those roads lead so that the commitment of “never again” lives strongly in their hearts.”
Deborah Guido-O’Grady is a senior advisor in the office of Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues.