Working to Promote Holocaust-era Restitution Worldwide

October 11, 2020

6 min read


An interview with Cherrie Daniels, US State Dept. Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues.

Cherrie Daniels, a lively Jewish mom and career member of the Senior Foreign Service, represents the United States when it comes to Holocaust-era issues, including education, restitution, and memorials. Since 2019, she’s served as the U.S. State Department’s Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues. “The Special Envoy is the point of contact within the State Department for all issues related to the Holocaust,” Cherrie recently explained in an exclusive interview. “I’m proud to do that work.”

Now Ms. Daniels’ office has released the Justice for Uncompensated Survivors Today (JUST) Act Report, a major document cataloguing the Holocaust-era property restitution efforts of countries worldwide. It’s a crucial assessment of what nations are doing to identify and return confiscated and stolen property and a guide for countries that still are working on returning property and assets seized by Nazis.

“I’m the first woman to serve as Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues,” Ms. Daniels observes. After taking over the office in August 2019, she immediately got to work compiling the JUST Act Report’s assessment of 46 countries. “The task was a bit monumental,” she says with quiet understatement. She leads a small team working on the report composed of “people who, like me, are passionate about the issue” of documenting the Holocaust and chronicling restitution, she explains.

The JUST Act Report, which was written in response to bipartisan US legislation signed into law in May 2018, grew out of the 2009 international Terezin Declaration. Forty-seven participating nations (including the US) endorsed the Terezin Declaration and committed themselves to research, identify, and provide restitution of or compensation for property and assets stolen during the Holocaust era. They also committed themselves to do more to promote the welfare of Holocaust survivors and to advance Holocaust commemoration and education. The 2020 JUST Act Report is a follow up to that, assessing the extent to which the countries which endorsed the Declaration are living up to their commitments. Ms. Daniels believes that this is the most comprehensive report by the United States government on implementation of all aspects of the Terezin Declaration.

“So many Jewish communities were nearly extinguished in the Holocaust,” she explains, and the desire to honor their memory and seek a measure of justice for the survivors and their heirs guided her work. Ms. Daniels wanted to stress the magnitude of this loss in her report. “Each chapter begins with how many Jews there were at the beginning of the Holocaust in each country documented and how many survived,” she notes. The Report transcends the dry language of many bureaucratic documents and offers an eloquent testament to Jewish life in communities before the Nazi era and today. The report’s searing honesty and beauty is the result of first-rate researchers and the stellar work of U.S. embassy staff around the world, Ms. Daniels notes. It’s also a testament to her unique leadership.

Born in the United States, Ms. Daniels’ own family history offers a glimpse into the way that many Jewish communities have been buffeted by history.

“Both my parents were born in Iran,” she notes. Her father died when she was a toddler. Ms. Daniels and her brother were raised by their mother in Texas, and their mother now lives near Atlanta, Georgia. “Being a Persian Jew gives me an interesting perspective,” she notes. “I’m Persian-American and my husband is Ashkenazi – both of those identities are reflected in our family.” She wants her children to grow up aware of their ancestors’ diverse Jewish histories, the status of many Jews throughout history at one time or another as immigrants, and to gain from that the wherewithal to stand up to intolerance, prejudice, and hate. “Being a Jewish person brings into even greater relief that those things don’t happen again,” Ms. Daniels notes.

As the Holocaust recedes further into the past and the last survivors of the Holocaust pass away in the coming years, Ms. Daniels notes that it’s more crucial than ever to preserve their memory and their first-hand eyewitness testimony. “The Holocaust isn’t only history,” she observes, “it’s about affecting our future. How are we going to see the signposts on the way to future persecutions and what are we going to do with this information? How are we going to recognize the signposts – including virulent anti-Semitism – that led to this greatest persecution of Jews and others? And to make sure that this sort of atrocity never happens to anyone ever again?”

Ms. Daniels notes that her long career in the U.S. State Department, as well as her unique family story, give her a sense of urgency when it comes to the various aspects of her work.

From 2003 to 2006, Ms. Daniels served in Jerusalem, as the Director of the U.S. Embassy’s American Center. It was an important time in her life: as well as enjoying the privilege of spending three years living in the Jewish state, she was also dating her husband long distance at the time. (He lived in Washington DC; the two married once she returned home.)

She remembers hosting Edward O’Donnell in Jerusalem when he was the State Department’s Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues in the early 2000s. It felt momentous to be in Jerusalem, the capital of the Jewish state, hosting him and discussing the crucial issues of Holocaust remembrance and restitution. Now that she occupies the office of Special Envoy herself, she continues to rely on Ambassador O’Donnell and other predecessors in the office as mentors.

After marrying, Ms. Daniels and her husband built their family while she served abroad, representing the United States. “I try to serve in countries where there is at least a small Jewish community,” she explains, so that she and her family can participate in Jewish life.

Ms. Daniels is glad her kids have had the chance to see what life is like in countries with small but dynamic Jewish populations. Now that the family is based in Washington DC, her children attend a local Jewish day school. She wants them to realize that not all Jews are privileged to live in places with extensive Jewish resources.

As the Holocaust recedes from memory, Ms. Daniels insists it’s more important than ever to ensure high quality, historically accurate Holocaust education, commemoration and remembrance. The pressure of racing against time “is something that we feel very much in this office – we’re pressing for a belated measure of justice for the survivors and the heirs of Holocaust victims,” she explains.

Despite the incredibly long, grueling hours and busy travel schedule, her husband and kids are excited about her work, “and my mom gets to kvell.”

Her mom and kids might joke that Ms. Daniels is a superhero. The Jewish sage Hillel might have called her a leader instead. “In a place where there are no leaders, strive to be a leader,” he observed two millennia ago (Pirkei Avot 2:6). With the help of Cherrie Daniels, the US is leading the world in pointing out what has been done and what remains to be done to help return property stolen by Nazis to the original owners, and in championing Holocaust education.

The 2020 JUST Act Report can be found here:

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