Picking Up the Holocaust's Shattered Pieces

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After waiting more than 50 years, the world is finally beginning to come to grips with some of the many waves of disruption and destruction visited upon the victims, survivors and heirs of the Nazi Holocaust. The latest effort at restitution -- based on good intentions but relying only on good intentions -- comes out of a Washington conference of 44 countries and more than a dozen Jewish, cultural and business groups. The conferees agreed on a set of guidelines to retrieve and return Nazi-looted art to rightful owners and also to return communal property -- from former synagogues and schools, for example -- to Jewish communities. Stuart Eizenstat, head of the U.S. delegation which sponsored the gathering that concluded today, pronounced himself "impressed" and "overwhelmed" by the results.

"Encouraging" may have been a more objective assessment. Holocaust victims have often been disappointed by past restitution efforts, and the latest emerging agreement contains no guarantees. "Certainly it is good that issues such as looted art are coming to the forefront," says TIME writer-reporter Jodie Morse, "but the guidelines have no enforcement mechanism." Still, with nations and companies opening their archives to public scrutiny as people are becoming more willing to speak out, the conference provides new hope for some sort of final accounting. At the very least, the meeting ended on an encouraging note: The Russian delegation delivered three documents that could provide leads on art stolen from Austrian Jews.