Skip to main content

Terezin Declaration: Holocaust Era Assets

Volume 736: debated on Monday 26 March 2012

Question for Short Debate

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they will take to ensure that fellow signatories to the Terezin Declaration on Holocaust Era Assets fulfil the obligations of the Declaration in relation to the restitution of wrongfully seized property.

My Lords, I start with a quote from Bazyler:

“Holocaust restitution is not about money. It is about victims. It is about individuals who have waited for over 60 years for something. Of course, it is not about perfect justice, but it is about waiting for some recognition to validate the misdeeds that have been perpetrated. . . Holocaust restitution is not only about the victims. It is also about those who victimized. It is about satisfying the need for a moral accounting regarding the horrific events of the second world war and some of the communist depradations thereafter”.

The trauma of human loss was so great that no discussion of material loss occurred for decades after the war. Only the Germans made reparations for about 50 years from 1945, to their credit. With the end of the Cold War and the collapse of communist regimes, not only did walls fall, but doors were opened to memories, to archives, to litigation and legislation, to honest property titles supported by law, to negotiation and to the facing up to the unresolved issues of the past. There is unfinished business, and sadly those most affected, the survivors, are now in their 90s, and for decades have been frustrated in their relatively modest aims. I feel a personal responsibility for them and for those for whom it is too late, and I declare an interest as a descendant of those from whom property was taken, although I am uncertain about title and the possibilities of claim because I have no way to ascertain ownership and sale.

There has been a series of conferences on restitution, culminating in the conference that resulted in the Terezin declaration, the 2009 Prague conference on holocaust era assets. Adopted by 47 countries, including the UK, the declaration called for participating states to meet the social and medical needs of the half a million survivors, of whom half are on the poverty line; it called for the restitution of wrongful property seizures, forced sales and sales under duress in the Nazi period; it called for the identification and restitution of cultural property seized by the Nazis; and it called for open access to archival material, the preservation of memorials and for measures to combat anti-Semitism.

In 2010, there was a follow-up conference, which produced guidelines relating to best practice in property restitution, the most intractable problem. Solution would remove the cloud that hangs over the title to many properties in eastern Europe. The guidelines apply to communal and personal property and state that the compensation process should be accessible, simple, expeditious, avoid residency and other onerous requirements, and be of low cost. States should open their archives to assist in the proof of title, which should not be too onerous, while respecting the occupancy rights of those who are current residents in good faith. Poland, which attended the Terezin conference, did not sign up to the guidelines.

The achievements in this field, even before Terezin, are considerable. There have been settlements of the issues relating to dormant bank accounts in Switzerland, and to unclaimed insurance benefits. There have been payments to former slave labourers, and there has been some restoration of communal religious property. The Czech Government have established the European Shoah Legacy Institute in Prague to supervise follow-up.

Some countries which had formerly neglected the topic have enacted, or are in the process of enacting, legislation for the return of or compensation for stolen property—they are Turkey, Latvia, Hungary, and Lithuania. The UK, to its great credit, enacted the Holocaust (Stolen Art) Restitution Act 2009, and the significant contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Janner, in taking this forward must be recognised. The checking of the provenance of artworks which might have changed hands in the Nazi period is now routine. The UK has also appointed the first envoy for post-Holocaust issues, the distinguished diplomat Sir Andrew Burns. In addition, the Wiener Library in London hosts, from 2011, the International Tracing Service, a digital record of 17.5 million people of the Holocaust. All those involved are deeply grateful to the UK for this move.

The Government of Israel were previously reluctant to get involved, and many of the survivors there felt that to accept any tainted money, as they saw it, was immoral. But they have now set up a database of half a million pieces of stolen property called Project Heart. The list was compiled from European archives, and the plan is to move to legal and public action to stimulate the co-operation of countries that have not done the right thing so far.

However, problems remain. Too many states only allow claims for property taken in too narrow a time band, require current citizenship, or place impossible evidentiary burdens on claimants, when of course they must know that those who were killed or fled did not preserve title deeds. The pursuit of legal action inside a foreign country is prohibitively difficult, and the European Court of Human Rights too slow.

The worst offender, however, is Poland. It remains the only major country in the former Soviet bloc and now in Europe that has no law providing for restitution or compensation for private property stolen during the Holocaust. Poland was home to 3.3 million Jews before the war, of whom 90 per cent were destroyed, leaving behind their homes. On 13 occasions there has been Polish draft legislation, the most recent abandoned this year. Restitution had been made a condition of Polish entry to the EU, but was dropped at the last minute due to the country’s economic conditions. However, Poland is now one of the few European countries to have avoided the recession, and had a 4.3 per cent growth in GDP last year. This year Poland also abrogated the mechanism to facilitate the return of communal property seized by Nazi and communist decrees, before the work was finished.

We call on the UK Government to persuade Poland to participate in the 2012 conference on this topic, to disregard communist nationalisation of property seized by the Nazis, to assist in the creation and operation of a restitution mechanism, and to support the USA in its approaches to Poland.

The model restitution programme is that of Austria, which in 1938 forced Jewish property sales and forced Jews out of the professions. In 2001 Austria established a General Settlement Fund to resolve all remaining issues. The Austrian Government set up a three-person claims committee to receive claims, using relaxed standards of proof—for example, the 1938 property records, witness statements and birth certificates. The Austrians put $210 million into the fund, with extra for insurance claims. Claimants no longer had to take legal action at their own cost. The committee dealt with 20,000 claims relating to 240,000 individuals before closing its work. This model should be promoted by the UK Government for all outstanding eastern European issues. Archives need to be opened and an office has to help the elderly claimants with their research. I trust that this will be the UK’s programme when it attends the conference this year.

Sharansky said that the Holocaust was not only genocide but the greatest theft in history. Justice is in sight if the UK will use its good offices to ensure the implementation of the Terezin declaration.

My Lords, I am delighted that the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, has so eloquently introduced this short debate on the restitution of property in claims arising from the Holocaust. The House will probably be aware that I have no direct interest in this matter, having neither Jewish faith nor heritage, but partly because of that position of disinterest I have involved myself over the years in a number of issues concerning anti-Semitism. Sadly, because of the diffuse nature of that discourse, one suspects that issues of that old evil tend to return, even in cases where, as the noble Baroness has reminded us, it is not simply Jewish property but other property that has been looted.

It could be argued that the wicked legacy of Nazism is not just the Holocaust, with the slaughter of 6 million Jews and other minorities who were not acceptable to the Hitler Government. It is of course never easy, and perhaps may not be tasteful, to put in the same frame crimes against people and crimes against property, but the Nazi era saw not jut mass slaughter but also mass confiscation. It is never possible to restore lives which have been lost or lives which have been spoiled for ever by the suffering that has been endured. However, it is possible to make some amends, however inadequate, for property which has been looted.

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall and as direct memories and survivors of the Holocaust have passed from the scene, we are beginning to take an interest, or renew and intensify our interest, in these property issues. We know now that there is looted property in many countries—whether documented or not and whether under the control of the official authorities or other communities—which could in principle still be restored to the families of those from whom it was taken, whether they are Jewish or gentile. It is our duty in the modern world, if we claim to be based on liberal and modern values, to discharge this commitment.

Of course, survivors may be poor and they and often their families of that generation are bound to be frail, but, frankly, there is not very much time for our courts and bureaucracies to make acts of restitution in accordance with, for example, the Council of Europe resolution which bears directly on this for all member states. The noble Baroness reminded the House that in 2009 Britain signed the Terezin declaration, which reflected this new interest, passion and sense of urgency in getting the matter dealt with. Britain has acted on it and so, too, have other states which are in one sense perhaps more intimately concerned with this matter. Austria, for example, has set a standard of good practice. Others, frankly, have been more dilatory. I joined the noble Baroness and others recently in making representations to the Polish ambassador. We had a constructive, but not wholly satisfactory, discussion. I believe that that country—which did, of course, attend the Terezin conference—needs to do more than simply rely on individuals pursuing their own cases through the courts, elderly as many of them are. In a country with, sadly, so many property claims—by no means all of them arising from Jewish backgrounds—they need to provide for the systematic availability of their archives and for an office to pursue collective claims and, if possible, bring them to a conclusion.

We, in turn, as co-signatories to the Terezin declaration, need to undertake our own obligations. This is a matter of closure; it is a matter by which we can at least slightly mitigate one of the most disastrous chapters in history.

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, on securing this debate on a subject that summons up the pain and tragedy endured by so many millions in Europe for so many years in the last century. The Terezin declaration by 46 European countries was an important step in healing wounds that remained from those terrible years. I speak as someone whose father lost close family in the Holocaust in Austria and in what was then Czechoslovakia. Nothing can undo the evil that was done, but restitution does at least recognise that evil was done. As the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, and the noble Lord, Lord Boswell, said, it is not so much the material recovery of property that matters as the recognition of—the bearing of witness to—the fact that such evil was done. Without it, it is difficult to see how there can be any closing of the books or any defining atonement.

Of course, the restitution of assets is not the only way for such recognition to take place. The German artist Gunter Demnig, for example, created the idea of Stolpersteine: small memorials positioned in places associated with victims of Nazism. There are now hundreds of them in Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic, Hungary and other European countries commemorating not just Jewish victims but Romany, homosexual and Christian victims of the Nazis, and many others as well.

Notwithstanding that, the restitution of assets has a crucial part to play in this process—and not just for the victims of the Nazis. The people of central and eastern Europe suffered not only from their tyranny but also from that of the communists. This country has a special relationship with Poland, which lies at the centre of this debate tonight; 35,000 Polish service personnel fought gallantly alongside us in the Second World War. More recently, thousands of Polish men and women have come to work in our service and manufacturing industries, making a significant contribution to economic growth in this country. It is regrettable that Poland appears to be the only post-communist European nation without legislation on the restitution of assets stolen by the Nazis and expropriated by the communists.

I am sure that everyone in your Lordships’ House understands the suffering that Poland endured in the 20th century and how complex and difficult these issues are. Of course, we all recognise the economic problems with which Poland is struggling, along with every other country in Europe. However, when the Terezin declaration was made, all the signatories recognised such difficulties and other signatories have made progress with implementation despite experiencing problems similar to those in Poland. We must hope that Poland, too, can now finally make some real progress on this matter.

Her Majesty’s Government showed the importance that they attach to these issues when nearly two years ago they appointed Sir Andrew Burns as the first envoy for post-Holocaust issues. I would be grateful if the Minister could update the House on the work that Sir Andrew has been doing since then. I would also be grateful if the Minister could set out what steps Her Majesty’s Government are taking to encourage the implementation of the Terezin declaration by all signatories before the 70th anniversary of the end of World War Two in 2015. I understand that the Minister, as he has on previous occasions when this subject has come up in your Lordships’ House, may well choose to withhold substantive comment until after the review conference on the declaration that is to be held later this year, but perhaps he could undertake now to report back to your Lordships’ House on the outcome of that conference and set out what further steps Her Majesty’s Government may think will then be necessary to ensure that all the signatories to the Terezin declaration implement its provisions by 2015.

My Lords, before my noble friend Lord Palmer rises to speak, since this is a self-regulating House and we may sometimes adopt different procedures, I can say that a great deal of understanding has broken out over the procedure to be adopted on the Scotland Bill. The usual channels have had a brief meeting and we have discussed these matters with the relevant Back-Benchers of both the Opposition and the Conservative Party who have a great interest in the amendments that they have tabled to the Bill. There is an understanding between the usual channels and interested Back-Bench Peers that we will conclude the whole of the Report stage of the Scotland Bill on Wednesday, and there is an agreement that that can be done without the need to return to the Bill tonight. This may be of assistance to noble Lords and to the staff of the House. I apologise to my noble friend Lord Palmer.

My Lords, I will not take that as an invitation to speak for longer than I had originally intended. I want to make the important point that the restitution of wrongfully seized property is in no way a recompense for imprisonment, loss of life or genocide. Like other noble Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, for tabling this debate and for summarising all that has happened and what it is hoped will happen.

Poland is the only major European country that has no law for the restitution of private property stolen during the Holocaust. Poland was part of the Terezin conference, although it did not sign the declaration. Before the war, there were 3 million Jews in Poland and afterwards only 300,000 were left. My late mother was one of the lucky ones. She and her brother sought sanctuary in Britain, coming here between the two great wars. My mother married a Geordie and was saved by the welcome that she received in this country. However, her mother, my maternal grandmother, and my aunt were never heard of again after 1944. They were part of that tragedy.

The family had been bakers in the town of Szrensk, which is between Warsaw and Gdansk, and I imagine that assets of some sort would have been lost by my family. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, I have no records whatever. To me, that is all ancient history. I along with many others have made my way in this country, which many people here sadly take for granted. I do not look for monetary restitution. In fact, when I look back at those wars, I think more of my late father’s British war service, attached to the Eighth Army, and of my uncle, who was killed while serving with the Middlesex Regiment. However, there are those who rightly believe that they need and are entitled to restitution. Many survivors and their offspring live in straitened circumstances.

There are approximately 90,000 surviving claimants to property in Poland. The majority are non-Jewish, as has been mentioned by my noble friend Lord Boswell and the noble Baroness, Lady Deech. In some cases the confiscators were the Nazis, while in others they were the communists. Listening to other noble Lords, I thought that it might be useful to give one example. It is that of the Polish resistance fighter Jan Karski, who was on the run from the Gestapo. He was sheltered for months on a country estate owned by the Sawa family. Karski was eventually smuggled out of occupied Poland. Sadly, the Sawa family did not get out of the country and Karski later learnt that the entire family had been arrested by the Nazis, tortured and executed. The point of relevance to this debate is that the property of that non-Jewish family was added to the vast horde of loot stolen by the Nazis and never returned.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, mentioned, there are at least 13 occasions when Poland has drafted legislation and then stuck it back on the shelf. The European Parliament, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe and the US Senate and Congress have all called on Poland to resolve the claims. Now it must be our turn in the UK to urge the Polish Government to ease the onerous conditions imposed on potential claimants who have to go to law, to give them access to records, to allow them to set up a modest central fund to resolve claims for religious and communal property and, lastly, to participate in the 2012 conference on Holocaust-era assets.

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, for bringing forward this dinner break debate, although I would have preferred it if we had not been running to Spanish dinner times. The Terezin conference was the last of a series of conferences convened to consider the issue of restitution following seizure by Nazi Germany of so much property in Europe. Forty-three countries drafted non-binding guidelines relating to best practice in property restitution. These guidelines provided the basis for international, intergovernment negotiations. Governments were required to act swiftly to enact laws to create new restitution rules and regulations to assist claimants to retrieve property or obtain compensation.

In the case of heirless property where the family members had been wiped out, states were requested to create solutions for restitution and compensation. They were charged with creating special funds to promote welfare for needy survivors, as well as to create memorials and commemorations of the Holocaust. The guidelines promoted the idea that resolving issues of restitution and title to property is no longer the sole interest of any one signatory country. All signatory nations are called upon to create procedures for restitution and to consult with each other—effectively to move things along and solve problems.

And so we come to Poland. As noble Lords have heard this evening, Poland is the only post-communist European country without restitution or compensation legislation. Poland has had a go—indeed, several goes—at drafting legislation, but it has come to nothing. Poland’s latest attempt at passing a law was earlier this year, when it was proposed that all restitution claims would go through the Polish courts, where claimants would have to prove land ownership in property registries burned down during the Second World War, or to procure testimony from witnesses who were no longer alive. What is more, claimants had to put up a guarantee of 3 per cent of the property value being claimed, which would be forfeited in the event that the claim was rejected. Not surprisingly, the proposed law received much criticism, and so far nothing has been done.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, said, last year’s excuse was an economic one. The economic climate was not conducive, we were told, to a restitutionary law being enacted. Bearing in mind, as we have heard, that Poland’s economic growth exceeded 4 per cent, the excuse no longer hangs together. Where do we go from here? As I said, the Terezin declaration calls for countries to work together to secure restitution or compensation. As the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, said, a lot of pressure has been put on Europe by the Council of Europe, the European Parliament and the US Senate and Congress. Indeed, restitution was to have been a condition of Poland’s entry to the EU, but that went by the wayside. More must be done, and if all European countries and the USA were to join together and put pressure on Poland, I am sure that progress could be made.

The noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, in answer to the Question asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, on 5 December last year, said that the Government took,

“the issue of property restitution very seriously”,

and would,

“continue to remind Poland of its stated intention to reinstate a restitution Bill, currently stalled, when its economic situation allows”.—[Official Report, 5/12/11; col. 499.]

I venture to suggest that growth of 4.3 per cent—if only we had that here—allows for restitution. I would ask the Minister once again to remind Poland, this time a bit more loudly, of its duty. If he can encourage some of our friends on both sides of the Atlantic to join in this noble cause, perhaps at last we will make some progress.

On joining the EU, Poland signed the European Convention on Human Rights, which holds that:

“No one shall be deprived of his possessions except in the public interest and subject to the conditions provided for by law and by the general principles of international law”.

No such law applied when the Nazis seized this property, and it is time for Poland to recognise this. Poland has a moral obligation, and we would like to see it deliver on that morality.

The enormity of the Holocaust places it in a category of its own, and a recognition of this is embodied in the Terezin agreement. The stated objectives of the Terezin accord have been pursued by the signatories with varying degrees of alacrity. The signatory that has faced the greatest practical task in identifying the victims and their inheritors and in making consequential actions is Poland. It was acknowledged by Nigel Ross, the principal British delegate to the conference, that although Poland had to a large extent dealt with the matter of communal restitution, it had made no real progress in the matter of personal restitution. It is undeniable that there have also been acts of bad faith. There are now very few survivors who have had a direct experience of the Holocaust, so the issue here is the restitution of properties to inheritors of Holocaust victims. Surely the reason why so little has been forthcoming from the Poles in that respect is that they fear that by making such restitutions they will encourage a much greater number of claims from other parties. There was a considerable displacement of Germans from Poland at the end of the war and they and their descendants must surely be encouraged to make claims, if other claims were allowed.

There are many more recent cases to contend with that have arisen from the post-war communist period. In a fragile post-communist era, the Poles have preferred to let sleeping dogs lie, instead of addressing the abuses of the previous era. One such abuse has left an erstwhile dictator in control of a vast estate that was expropriated under his regime. I am reasonably familiar with Poland, and, in particular, with the city of Lodz, which I have visited on three occasions and to which I will return in May. The city was a textile manufacturing town that was built mainly in the 40 years from 1840 to 1880. During that period, it accumulated a mixed population of Poles, Germans, Russians and Jews. I first visited Lodz in the 1980s; in the Polish winter, it was a dank and grizzled place. No one thought of showing me its former splendours. The stucco of its architectural adornments had, in main, become unstuck. The city was undifferentiated in its misery and decay.

On my last visit, two years ago, I was astonished to see the city renewed. It had become self-conscious in its beauty. The huge textile manufacturing complex of Israel Posnansky, referred to simply as Manufaktura, has been restored to its former glory as a huge shopping centre and leisure complex. Its four-storey workshops have become hotels, museums and art galleries. The population of the city is becoming increasingly heterogeneous, comprising Poles, Germans, Baltic people and Russians. One former element that is missing is a Jewish population. The city is still derelict in some quarters, indeed it is increasingly so. One such area, which is adjacent to Manufaktura, once housed a predominantly Jewish population. The buildings are in decay because the rights to the properties are undecided. Perhaps if the intentions were fulfilled, the Terezin declaration would serve to establish the rights of ownership of the descendants of those who vacated these properties under duress. However, the properties have surely lost their value. Calculated at present values and diminished by at least two rounds of death duties, they would amount to a paltry inheritance.

I should hesitate to make recommendations regarding other people’s inheritance, but I do have a suggestion to offer. A statute of limitations should be negotiated, with certain strong provisos. It should be agreed that the titles to the properties in question should revert to the municipality. The provisos are that this should happen only if the municipality would undertake the restoration of the properties, and a prominent acknowledgement should be made of their provenance and of the generosity of those who have relinquished their entitlements.

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, for securing this evening’s debate. I have learnt much, and I have been touched by the personal stories that we have heard. In particular, I pay tribute to the noble Baroness for her long-standing dedication to the cause of encouraging all nations to recognise their obligations to pay reparations for objects looted during one of the darkest periods of the world’s history.

Restitution is indeed about victims and the need for moral accounting. No matter how many times one hears the horrific statistics relating to the Holocaust, it is deeply shocking, and I trust that that sense of horror and shock will continue. As the noble Lord, Lord Boswell, said, crimes against property cannot equate to crimes against humanity; but even inadequate amends for property that has been looted ensures, in part, that moral accounting. My noble friend Lord Wills spoke of the sense of healing and the bearing of witness that evil has been done.

During the Holocaust, property was stolen, homes were looted, valuables and paintings were pillaged, wedding rings were melted down and, as we know, even the gold teeth of Holocaust victims were removed and transformed into gold use. It has been estimated that by the end of the war the Germans had looted in the region of £550 million.

Like all noble Lords who have spoken, my party, when in government, fully supported Holocaust asset restitution, and we continue to see the issue of restitution as morally important as well as legally and culturally vital to honour. That is why, following the 1998 Washington conference on Holocaust-era assets and the endorsement of the Washington declaration on Nazi-confiscated art, the Labour Government established the Spoliation Advisory Panel. This small panel of experts makes an important contribution and reaches carefully considered conclusions to claims for restitution, and its work is rightly appreciated for being fair. The panel by no means always finds in favour of the claimants. Labour in government issued a consultation paper, Restitution of Objects Spoliated in the Nazi-Era, that concluded in favour of removing statutory restrictions on the return of assets. My Government facilitated legislation to enable the de-accession of cultural items from museums, and we signed the UK up to the Terezin declaration that we are discussing this evening.

From these Benches we endorse the Terezin principles and strongly encourage the Government to use diplomatic efforts to encourage other states to sign up to and honour what the declaration called for. As we have heard in today’s debate, there is particular concern that Poland has yet to become a signatory to Terezin. I believe that Poland has a moral duty to sign up to the declaration and to honour it. As we have heard, poor survivors of the genocide need and deserve restitution.

It is important that efforts to secure just and fair solutions regarding cultural property such as those outlined in the Terezin declaration are sustained. This evening’s debate will encourage the Government to keep up the pressure. My party favours a power of permission, not compulsion. We feel that there is a moral imperative behind restitution but acknowledge difficulties in forcing current trustees to return looted goods. In acknowledging the need for permissive legislation to facilitate restitution, my Government gave our full support to the Holocaust (Return of Cultural Objects) Bill, a Private Member’s Bill, in 2009; and, like the noble Baroness, I, too, pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Janner for what he did in securing that legislation. As a result of the legislation, the boards of trustees of the British Museum, the British Library, the Natural History Museum, the Tate galleries and many more may transfer an object from their collections if so advised.

The Terezin declaration goes further than calling for the restitution of cultural objects and wrongfully seized personal property. It calls for Holocaust education, remembrance and the preservation of memorials. We fought hard for multilateral support to educate, research and remember such a terrible event, and signed the Stockholm declaration in 2000. The first Holocaust Memorial Day took place soon afterwards in 2001. Our support has never wavered, and neither has the support of Members of this House.

It is important that measures are taken to remember, restore and respect, and I welcome the opportunity in this House to do just that today. I urge the Government to do whatever they can to ensure that Poland signs up to the Terezin declaration.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness very much for this debate and the opportunity to discuss this delicate and deeply emotional subject. I thank her for her kind words about the efforts that the British Government have been making and continue to make in this area.

The 46 states that signed the Terezin declaration in 2009 made a landmark moral commitment to address some of the injustices related to the Holocaust, including the wrongful seizure of property from families and individuals across our continent, particularly in the eastern part. The declaration set out the principles and measures for the signatories to implement not just in the field of immovable property, which we are focusing on today, but also looted art, Judaica, social welfare for Holocaust survivors, open archives and Holocaust remembrance and research. The guidelines on best practice for property restitution that were adopted by individual signatories were intended to be turned into law and practice.

Like many noble Lords gathered in the House today, the Government are frustrated with the lack of real progress since that declaration was signed. The Government, the noble Baroness and indeed the noble Lord, Lord Janner, played a significant role in the original discussions, and we will again be one of the main actors in the review conference later this year to move its implementation forward. The review conference can provide much needed renewed momentum for property and art restitution across Europe. We are actively involved in preparatory meetings, pressing for practical and meaningful outcomes at the conference. We have suggested case studies from those states that have made good progress and practical seminars with lawyers and financing experts, designed to help member states tackle some of the commonly raised issues.

In researching this speech, I was fascinated and moved by the history of the recovery by the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, of some of her family silver. One gets a sense of the importance of history, identity and continuity that that can provide, and the difficulty of being able to re-establish it. It is a wonderful story and I recommend to others that they look into it. Some of the family silver had been hurriedly given to a Polish neighbour who had buried it in their garden, and who discovered only when he read the story of the noble Baroness’s search for the remains of her family property that there was a link and he could at last find someone to whom he could restore it.

We are all conscious of the complexities and, I should say, the agonies of Polish history. Two summers ago I read Timothy Snyder’s book Bloodlands on what happened to all the peoples between Germany and Russia—all the many Jews who lived in that area but also Ukrainians, Poles, Belarusians and others. I note that the family of the wife of Norman Davies, who assisted in the recovery and return of the noble Baroness’s silver, lost their property in what is now Ukraine and were forced to move into other vacant property in what is now Poland—everyone has been forced to push west, of course—that for all they knew might well have been confiscated from Jewish Poles.

The status of Polish property records compared with the Austrian ones, which the noble Baroness rightly holds up as a model, are rather less good than they should be, for fairly obvious reasons—the amount of destruction that Poland suffered during the war. The Polish archives are gradually being digitised but there is still a long way to go. In many parts of Poland, with the boundaries having been shifted so sharply, the layers of claims to ownership are extremely complex and contested.

I also recommend the memoir written by the current Polish Foreign Minister, Radoslaw Sikorski, about his family’s attempt to buy and restore a house in western Poland. As they began to restore it, there were occasions when others came and looked at it and expressed an interest in re-establishing their property ownership—quite often people from Germany or elsewhere. We all understand that Poland has enormous difficulty in establishing who owned what and when; and the years of Nazi, then communist, ownership have made this extremely difficult.

We are focusing on Poland, but Ukraine, whether or not you regard it as a post-communist country, is another case in point. It failed to attend the conference or sign the declaration, as did Russia. Without naming names, it is fair to say that other states that signed up to the declaration have a patchy record in implementing it.

Several Peers touched on the question of what restitution is intended to restore. The noble Baroness said that Holocaust restitution was not about money but victims. The noble Baroness, Lady Royall, said that we were talking about moral accounting. As some noble Lords may know, the Austrian central fund has restored a small percentage of the estimated value of the property. In the Polish case, part of our concern we have is that the Polish Government are extremely worried about how large the bill would be once the claims were presented—not only by Jewish former owners but by the much larger number of Polish former owners, many of them no longer living in Poland.

I note from a story in the Jewish Chronicle in summer 2009 that the estimate of the total value of property lost in Poland during the war was around £15.5 billion. It is thought that 80 per cent of it came not from Jews but from Poles who lost land. As the noble Viscount, Lord Hanworth, suggested, it is quite clear that such large sums simply could not be restored. There is a conversation to be had with the Polish Government about levels of financial restitution, as well as about moral closure, which is what we are all most interested in.

I was asked what activities Sir Andrew Burns, the UK Government’s special representative, is currently engaged in. I found him extremely helpful on several occasions in briefing me on this. He is actively involved in working with the other parties to the Terezin declaration to ensure that this November’s review conference produces some concrete deliverables. He will participate in two preparatory meetings in Prague before November’s conference, and co-hosted a meeting with his American opposite number in London two weeks ago to discuss the November review conference. He is also active in recruiting a new director for the International Tracing Service, which the noble Baroness spoke about, and will lead the British delegation to the 2012 review conference, which will also include members of NGOs and other UK experts.

The noble Lord, Lord Gold, asked whether Poland still had a programme for the restitution of communal property. It does not have legislation for the restitution of private immovable property, but the draft legislation on private property has not been passed because of the EU’s public debt rule. Again, the issue is how far the Polish Government, under their somewhat constrained circumstances, are willing to take on substantial financial obligations to people who, largely, live outside Poland under their somewhat constrained circumstances. The forecast for economic growth in 2012 is 2.5 per cent, after last year’s satisfactory growth of 4 per cent. If Poland adopted the draft legislation on private property, it would breach current EU rules on financial discipline.

We very much welcome this debate, and we clearly need to continue working on this issue. We will be doing our utmost actively to make sure that the November review conference is a great success. I certainly commit, on behalf of the Government, to report back in the most suitable fashion on the developments at the review conference.

Perhaps I might add briefly that Lodz has often been described to me as the Polish Bradford, that it is very much the same sort of city. When I heard that the city was still derelict in some places, I was thinking about some parts of Bradford, in which I was delivering leaflets on Saturday, which need a little bit of restoration still. All of us who know Poland know there are some very beautiful parts that have escaped the rigours of the war. Warsaw, where I am going on Friday, did not escape the rigours of the war and was largely destroyed. Of course, part of the emotional intensity of this on both sides is that the Poles feel that they suffered a great deal in the war and that the rest of the world does not always understand how much they suffered.

I thank everyone for their participation in this debate and the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, for the vigour with which she continues to pursue this set of issues. Her Majesty’s Government remain actively engaged in this and we will be taking a very active part in November’s review conference.

House adjourned at 10.21 pm.