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15 Years Later: Marking a Milestone for the Holocaust Claims Restitution Practicum

By Irina Tarsis, Esq.

Cardozo Practicum Feb 2000 NYLJ_illustration
Source: NYLJ (2000).

2015 marked the fifteenth Anniversary of the Holocaust Claims Restitution Practicum (HCRP, the Practicum) at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law (Cardozo). The program was inaugurated in the spring of 2000, less than two years after the 1998 Washington Conference on Holocaust Era Assets, which brought together representatives from over 40 nations to address the issue of stolen and hidden property suffered by the Nazi victims. Founded by a Ph.D. in art history and archeology and a lawyer, Lucille A. Roussin (a Cardozo alumna), the Practicum graduated over 100 students who lent their time and efforts to helping victims and families of Holocaust survivors address asset restitution issues. The HCRP is a unique program. It is dedicated to offering students immediate experience working with specialized agencies and legal practitioners on investigation and recovery of property stolen from Holocaust victims.

Formerly an associate with Herrick, Feinstein LLP, Roussin is a solo practitioner and an educator. She has also testified as an expert witness in a number of Nazi-era looted art cases. When she served as a member of the U.S. Presidential Advisory Commission on Holocaust Assets, Roussin envisioned offering legal training to law students through law firms and various nonprofit and government organizations, which would create a personalized experience working on the Holocaust-related issues.

At the time, supporters of the visionary proposal recognized that it could only be implemented in the United States, and more specifically New York, because the jurisdiction offers a unique forum for bringing property claims decades after an injustice was perpetrated. One of the most powerful New York procedural tools available to the victims of Nazi-era looting is the favorable statute of limitations rule that allows claims for restitution to be brought only after the current possessor refuses to return the property to the rightful owner, the so called “demand and refusal” rule, as set forth in the 1991 Guggenheim v. Lubell case. Elsewhere, and in most of the countries where lootings took place, legal title vested after a certain period of time lapsed regardless of the physical inability to locate the property by the victims or their heirs.

By design, the HCRP is made up of two components — a weekly seminar in a course entitled “Remedies for Wartime Confiscation” open to qualified upper class students, and a field placement with an entity (a large to small law firm, solo practitioner’s office, nonprofit organization or a governmental agency involved in restitution claims). In the classroom, students learn about the socio-economic situation and legal history dating back to the years prior to World War II and the imminent looting and restitution that followed.  Over the years, the Practicum has hosted guest lectures delivered by restitution experts, such as Professor Richard Weisberg, a member of the Cardozo faculty who serves on the Presidential Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad; Professor Eric Freedman, the European Advisor and visiting professor for the Program in Holocaust and Human Rights Studies; and attorneys from the Herrick, Feinstein LLC art law department. Students are evaluated on class participation, feedback from the practicum supervisors, and a final paper.

A prerequisite for the students to be enrolled in the course and qualify for the practicum is passing the International Law course. While knowledge of foreign languages and art history is not mandatory, they are highly preferred. Students seeking admission to the Practicum are interviewed both by Professor Roussin and the would-be-employers.

Each year, students are provided with the opportunity to work on unique and diverse case files. When asked which case seems to resonate with the Practicum alumni, Roussin cites the famous U.S. v. Portrait of Wally, a case that involved a painting by Egon Schiele on international loan to the Museum of Modern Art in New York. That case was subject to 12 years of litigation, which resulted in a multi-million dollar settlement in favor of the heirs of the original pre-war owner of the painting. However, just as the claims by the Holocaust victims are diverse, the work performed by the Practicum students is not limited to cases involving art and cultural property. Over the years, work placement for the Practicum students has ranged from complicated class action lawsuits involving banking and railroad industries, to matters pertaining to securing pensions for the elderly and restitution of real property.

One student who enrolled in the inaugural session of the Practicum wrote a letter to the then Dean of Cardozo, Paul Verkuil, expressing that his most important experience at Cardozo was earned through the HCRP, both because the subject matter was “extraordinarily interesting and relevant”, and because the practical experience was “invaluable” and “unparalleled.” That student was placed with a practitioner working on a case involving the French National Railway’s involvement in transporting Jews to concentration and death camps. Others have gone to work with New York based organizations and firms, such as the Holocaust Claims Processing Office in the New York State Department of Financial Services; Claims Conference; New York Legal Assistance Group; Herrick, Feinstein, LLP; Squire, Sanders & Dempsey; Law Offices of Mel Urbach; as well as the Washington D.C. based Holocaust Art Restitution Project and Byrn, Goldenberg & Hamilton; practitioners in Florida; and even organizations beyond the U.S. borders. Indeed, in 2005, three students worked with a member of the Knesset (the Israeli Parliament) on the first Global Report on Restitution of Jewish Property in the State of Israel. Many alumni fondly remember the Practicum as a highlight of their law school experiences.

Another alumna who worked with the New York State Banking Department as part of her experience in the Practicum remembers poring “over auction records and exhibition catalogues in the hopes of finding stolen art.” The stories about “people signing bills of “sale” for their art while Nazi soldiers held guns to their heads, apartments being raided and paintings torn from the walls, etc.” filled her with compassion for the victims and inspired her to “increase [her] own efforts to always be kind and tolerant towards others.”

Given the extent of the property disputes and human rights violations that continue to occur in the world, a restitution practicum may be expected to continue with new cases and reparations efforts. For now there is no lack of Nazi-era related claims being reported, such as the recent stories of the Rosenberg and Gutmann families who lost property during the Holocaust, as well as reports and studies of the art found in the Gurlitt Art Trove (a.k.a. the Schwabing Art Trove) in Germany.

When asked how long the Practicum may remain relevant and in existence, Professor Roussin hedged her response, stating that “[t]he program cannot last indefinitely.” No other law school offers such a practicum, which may, to some degree, be explained by the fact that there is only one Lucille Roussin, and New York is the logical jurisdiction to offer a training program for the Holocaust restitution cases. One of the best aspects of the practicum is that through the lectures and readings, students are able to appreciate that restitution is not only about litigating cases in courts but “it is equally a matter of gaining the political and financial support of key influencers.”

Despite the attention restitution has received through programs like HCRP, the problem of doing right by those displaced and dispossessed of their valuables as a result of an armed conflict or a genocide has not been eradicated. At least one HCRP student had worked on the first restitution case brought before a U.S. Court involving cultural property taken during the Armenian Genocide (1915-1917). W. Prelacy of the Armenian Apostolic Church v. J. Paul Getty Museum was ultimately settled this September, whereby the title to the contested illuminated Bible pages passed to the claimants while pages would remain on a permanent loan with the Getty Museum. Perhaps in time the Practicum will grow to include more restitution questions related political and social unrest in South America, Asia, the Middle East, and elsewhere in the world that affected lives and livelihood of other victims. By then the HRCP will have established a precedent of helping people restitute their valuables and getting some measure of justice through well-established legal channels.

*Reprinted with permission from: Entertainment, Arts and Sports Law Journal, Fall/Winter 2015, Vol. 26, No. 3, published by the New York State Bar Association, One Elk Street, Albany, NY 12207.

About the Author: Irina Tarsis, (NY Bar Member since 2012) is the Founder and Director of Center for Art Law.