New Man in Washington

Illustrierte Neue Welt (May/June 2010)

Ambassador Douglas Davidson was appointed U.S. Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues in April, 2010.

Career diplomat, he is also a member of the Senior Foreign Service and leading U.S. State Department Advisor to the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), also known as the Helsinki Commission, which monitors and encourages implementing the compliance of human rights principles as stated in the Helsinki Final Act.

As a scholar of the classics, he was previously a Fellow at the German Marshall Fund, a transatlantic think-tank. From 2004 – 2008 Ambassador Davidson was Head of the OSCE Mission in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which works to strengthen human rights and rule of law, as well as to bring about democratic reforms. In preceding years, Davidson served from 2001 – 2004 as Deputy U.S. Representative to the OSCE in Vienna, where he participated in multilateral negotiations, including those that led to the first OSCE Conference on Anti-Semitism in 2003.

During the course of his career the fifty-five year-old diplomat was posted in Zagreb, Belgrade, Pristina and Peschawar, among others. Henriette Schroeder conducted the following interview with Ambassador Davidson.

When was the office of the U.S. Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues founded and how would you describe its most important duties?

The office was established a good decade ago, however its origins go back much further to Stuart Eizenstat’s efforts during the middle to the end of the 1990s. As Special Representative of the President and Secretary of State on Issues of the Holocaust Era, he negotiated agreements with Swiss banks, German insurance companies and other institutions in order to obtain restitution for Holocaust victims and a certain measure of justice for Holocaust survivors and their families, should members have survived.

As U.S. Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues, which political, social and legal issues do you focus on?

The most important political, social and legal problems with which we are confronted are primarily in the field of restitution of property. This involves the return of private property of individuals, of the Jewish Community as well as of looted art. Although most countries within the European Union - particularly the new democracies of Central and Eastern Europe – have meanwhile passed laws on restitution, the implementation of such laws remains uneven, to put it mildly. In this area Austria has served as a model which, unfortunately, few other Eastern neighbors have thus far imitated.

Who contacts your office? What kinds of complaints do people come to you with?

Not everyone who contacts my office comes with complaints. Frequently we simply continue the dialogue with European government officials, representatives of Jewish non-governmental organizations, scientists, researchers and other interested people. However, I do often hear from the lawyers of people who are attempting to have their property returned, as well as from survivors and their family members, that they have the feeling the payments which they received from banks, insurance companies and governments were insufficient or that the payments have been unfairly denied to them. We, however, are also increasingly focusing on the dire need of the survivors who, everywhere, are living in poverty, even in the United States and are trying to find creative solutions to ease their need.

How successful has Austria been in regards to the return to rightful owners assets and art works that date back to the NS era? How many cases have still not been resolved and to what extent have the assets and works of art been already restituted?

I would have to leave the statistics to the representatives of the National Fund of the Republic of Austria for Victims of National Socialism and to the General Settlement Fund for Victims of National Socialism. I can, however, say that Austria has been more successful than others. Its laws on restitution of property contain what experts call in rem restitution, which means that instead of financial compensation, one actually receives return of the property. Those are ideal conditions which are seldom achieved. Austria has also a law on art restitution which is practically unique since it is in accordance with the principles established long ago by the 1998 Washington Holocaust-Era Assets Conference.

Have the settlement agreements with the Swiss banks and German, French and Austrian governments been concluded?

These agreements have existed at least for a decade. The goal of each of these agreements was to offer restitution payments to people who had claims to bank accounts or insurance policies before the Holocaust, who, however, never received what was owed them. In some cases, as for example the settlement agreements with Swiss banks, “remaining funds” are still being disbursed; others, such as the insurance- and forced labor funds which are covered by the German agreement have been concluded. Nevertheless, Germany, Austria and France continue to maintain funds which make payments in various ways.

Among the countries of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, which are you involved with? 

In general, one says that apart from Israel and the United States, the largest group of survivors is living in the “former Soviet Union.” I haven’t been long enough on the job to be able to be specific, but I can say that in this regard we are speaking about mostly those of the Russian Federation, the Ukraine and perhaps Balarus. Experts working in this area are increasingly interested in maintaining and preserving the mass graves in those countries in which so many people were victims of the Holocaust.

What happens to the art works that no one claims?

That’s a good question. It is also a complicated question. Directly following WW II, the Allied Forces tried to return looted art to the individual countries of origin. Then, I believe, it became the responsibility of the governments to return the art works to whom they originally belonged. Some works of art were returned to the families of former owners, to the extent that one could find them. In some cases, however, other members of the same family contested retroactively this decision. Art works which were not claimed - some I assume - are hanging on the walls of museums or private collections. We are also discovering that art works once acquired and brought back to the U.S. by American soldiers after WW II are showing up on the market now that these former soldiers have passed away. All of this today leads to continued legal disputes.

Which role does your office play in the area of Holocaust studies? Which organizations and governments are you working together with?

This is increasingly an important part of our job. The United States, together with Austria and other countries, is a member of the International Taskforce on Holocaust Education, Research and Remembrance. This organization, to which so many different countries like Israel and Argentina belong, is continually expanding. They are subsidizing projects in support of Holocaust studies in their member states. Another organization with which we collaborate is the German Foundation of Remembrance, Responsibility and Future, which implements similar programs. Moreover, there are a series of other such initiatives. We are trying to support and promote as many as possible.

What would it take to see that the Holocaust is remembered in an appropriate and dignified manner? 

It appears to me that we can do this the best by assisting and offering moral support  to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and its sister organizations throughout Europe, even worldwide. We are working also closely together with non-government organizations such as the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Currently we are participating in intense negotiations that are to help transform the International Tracing Service located in Bad Arolsen into an archive where researchers and scholars have access.

During your first meeting with survivors and children of survivors – what impressed you the most?

A number of things, and one of those is the unbelievable perseverance of the survivors whom I have met. Another is their commitment – as well as that of their children – to guarantee that the Shoah never happens again and to see that their sacrifice is met with justice. A third aspect are the stories which they tell and the things they have achieved in the United States, in Europe and elsewhere despite all that befell them or was done to them in the past.

During the middle of May I had the privilege of being invited to an event held at the Austrian Embassy in Washington, D.C., in which survivors from Austria, along with other guests, attended to commemorate the 15th Anniversary of the National Fund of the Republic of Austria for the Victims of National Socialism. The Secretary General of the Fund, Hannah Lessing, spoke in very moving words at the occasion. She is the granddaughter of a person who was murdered in Auschwitz and, nonetheless, continues her commitment in the very country that sent her grandmother to her death. I would like to quote the concluding words taken from her speech because it describes more eloquently than I ever could what my job is really all about.

“No murdered victim of the Holocaust should have perished in such a way. My city is filled with their absence. They have been silenced.

Therefore it is our legacy to give them a voice again. It is one of our biggest challenges to teach the younger generation of the loss in culture and humanity, to make them aware of what we are capable of doing to others - in the hopes that the words “Never again,” will have some meaning.

A survivor once put it very succinctly: “Everyone always asks how we died – no one ever asks how we lived.” I think we should finally begin to ask.”

What is the greatest challenge for you in your new job?

Almost everything.