Lord Eric Pickles has been the U.K. Special Envoy for Post-Holocaust Issues since 2015, dealing with issues of restitution of Holocaust-era assets, in addition to promoting Holocaust remembrance, education and research.
Holocaust education in state-run schools is mandatory in the United Kingdom.
Prior to his current role, Pickles was a member of the U.K. House of Commons between 1992 and 2017, and served multiple times as Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government; as well as chairman of the Conservative Party, Minister of State for Faith, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government and U.K. Anti-Corruption Champion.
He became a member of the House of Lords in 2018.
JNS talked with Pickles via Zoom on Sept. 16 before he took part in an event hosted by the Combat Anti-Semitism Movement. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Q: What is the reaction there to the release of the JUST Act (Justice for Uncompensated Survivors Today) report in July by the U.S. State Department?
A: Really pleased. I thought it was a great piece of work. I was pleased to be briefed on it before the release.
(The JUST Act, signed into law by U.S. President Donald Trump in May 2018, required the department to report to Congress on steps or lack thereof that signatories of the 2009 Terezin Declaration have taken to compensate Holocaust victims and their heirs.)
Q: How much has the United Kingdom given to Holocaust survivors and their heirs in restitution (both public and private)? How many cases (both public and private) are outstanding and what’s the value behind those cases?
A: No idea. You’ll see from the report on the JUST Act that the United Kingdom has got a pretty good record. We’ve already actively involved in restitution. We recently changed the law so that there is no period at which you can’t claim a piece of property. In terms of help and assistance, we generally rely obviously on the Claims Conference, various Jewish organizations. The Nazis, with the exception of the Channel Islands, didn’t occupy any part of the United Kingdom, so property wasn’t confiscated.
Q: What’s your reaction to Poland being the only European Union member state that has not adopted a national comprehensive private property restitution law? What leverage can the United Kingdom use to get Poland to pass such a measure?
A: We continue to lobby very hard with Poland to put a restitution scheme. I think it is a worry that they haven’t. We’ve seen the recent private member’s bill that went before the lower house is now with the Senate. I expect that to pass. I’m hopeful some amendments will go in to ensure that Holocaust victims’ families will still be able to make a claim.
But I think it would be wrong just to think it is only a problem in Poland with regard to restitution. We certainly have some worries with regards to the Czech Republic.
Q: What leverage can the United Kingdom use to get Poland to pass such a measure?
A: We have a small amount of leverage as an ally. But the truth is that the JUST Act is the only game in town. They probably want to be soft as possible to the European Union. America is the only country that has any muscle in this, so I’m kind of hoping that the JUST Act will be a point where we can start and work closely with Poland to get a restitution law.
Q: What effect, if any, will Brexit have on the United Kingdom administering Holocaust restitution?
Q: Do you feel British Prime Minister Boris Johnson made the issue of Holocaust restitution a priority?
A: Yes. Of course, it is a priority. Prime Minister Johnson gives me a free hand and to get on with the job. I was part of the team that brought the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Semitism to the United Kingdom, which adopted it [in 1998]. In terms of ensuring that we remember the Holocaust and its victims, we’ve ensured that quite a lot of money has gone into Holocaust education, Holocaust remembrance.
Q: Do you see the issue of providing restitution to Holocaust survivors and their relatives as a matter to fix the past or as part of the ongoing fight against anti-Semitism? Is the restitution issue one you work on with U.K. Anti-Semitism envoy Lord John Mann?
A: Myself and Lord Mann work very closely together. I think we need to understand in terms of restitution and also in terms of the Claims Conference that, increasingly, the direct victims of the Nazis are getting older, and therefore their needs are getting much greater in terms of physical and mental care, so we’re looking for an increase from the federal government at this time. We have to kind of remember that the last phase of the Holocaust is denial. The Holocaust will be reassessed. It’s really important that we ensure that the memory and unique nature of the Holocaust is remembered and remembered truthfully because there’s lots of people out there who want to distort that history and want to suggest it didn’t happen or want to pick holes in the whole thing.
Q: Will there ever be a time when all Holocaust-era restitution cases will be resolved? Or do you see this as an infinite issue?
A: I hope it’s not infinite. I’m quite surprised that some years after the war we’re still having to do this, but I, and a number of people, are trying to ensure that justice is done and there are a number of properties that were confiscated by the Nazis and are in the hands of third parties that are there in plain sight.
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