Facilitating restitution of Judaica plundered during the Holocaust is a priority for the Claims Conference/WJRO. Extensive efforts at returning objects and items of Judaica — historical and literary materials relating to Judaism — to their original owners started immediately after the end of the Shoah; the task is far from completed, even so many decades later.
Objects of Judaica looted during the Holocaust are defined in two ways:
- Objects that carry a quality of holiness (tashmishey kedusha) or are essential to the performance of a particular ritual or commandment (tashmishey mitzvah)
- Archives and libraries, not only including ceremonial Jewish items, but also items relating to Jewish organizations and Jewish life in general
We currently focus on gathering data about such items known to be in non-Jewish hands, especially in places, such as parts of Eastern Europe, where such Judaica may be at risk. Information about the location of items is the first step in saving them.
Reporting and Research
The Claims Conference/WJRO has compiled a Descriptive Catalogue of Looted Judaica, which provides a worldwide snapshot of what is known concerning the fate of Judaica destroyed by Nazi Germany and its allies.
In 2009, 47 nations, observer countries, and relevant non-governmental organizations, including the Claims Conference and the WJRO, convened for the Prague Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets. Among the reports prepared by the Claims Conference/WJRO was Holocaust Era Judaica and Jewish Cultural Property: A World-Wide Overview, which recommended actions to be taken by participating nations to address the challenges in restitution of looted assets. The report was based on the Descriptive Catalogue of Looted Judaica.
The Claims Conference is planning the creation of a handbook on how to conduct provenance research on Judaica as well as creation of a virtual exhibition on looted Judaica worldwide to move towards guidelines and best practices.
In cooperation with the National Library of Israel, the Claims Conference/WJRO is supporting projects to identify and catalog all Hebrew and other Jewish-language books and manuscripts in the National and University Library in Zagreb, and in other libraries and repositories throughout Croatia. The goal is eventually to do the same in libraries and repositories in other countries. Discussion of similar cooperation has already begun with the V.I. Vernadsky National Library of Ukraine.
The Claims Conference has also supported projects such as:
- The publication of “Neglected Witnesses. The Fate of Jewish Ceremonial Objects During the Second World War and After,” edited by Julie-Marthe Cohen, Jewish Historical Museum of Amsterdam and Felicitas Heimann-Jelinek, Jewish Museum of Vienna. London: Institute of Art and Law, 2011.
- Digitization of the Terezin collection as well as provenance research on previous owners of books held by the library of the Jewish Museum in Prague so as to facilitate restitution attempts.
Protecting Judaica and Extending the Registration of Torahs to Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union
The Claims Conference/WJRO is encouraging, along with several other organizations, the registration of Torah scrolls in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. Such registration can establish provenance, lessen theft and black market activity, and eventually serve as a basis to discuss restitution of Torah scrolls currently in the hands of the various governments. While the Claims Conference/WJRO does not favor any particular registration system, the Universal Torah Registry (UTR) appears to be particularly suited to the countries in question. The Universal Torah Registry, an independent organization founded by the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, provides a method that is both secure and acceptable under Jewish law to identify and register Torah scrolls.
Registration is different from repair of Torah scrolls. The Claims Conference has supported the repair of Romanian Torah scrolls by Menora, the Authority for the Repatriation of Diaspora Synagogues, and their relocation to Israel.