s a litigator with White & Case in New York throughout his career, and a partner since 1991, Owen Pell '83 has represented clients in an array of high-profile matters, including large securities fraud cases, foreign sovereign immunity and historical reparation matters, and in many international cross-border disputes.
But in recent years Pell has increasingly committed his time to pro bono work for the cause he is most passionate about: using the history of the Holocaust to prevent similar atrocities.
As a Jewish boy growing up in Brooklyn, Pell was keenly aware of the plight of Holocaust victims and survivors, and of the far-reaching consequences of genocide. This knowledge has motivated him to try to improve the situations of victimized populations worldwide.
Since the late 1990s, one of Pell’s specialties has been advising on cases related to Holocaust-looted art.
“There remains a gaping hole in the law,” he explained. “There is no question that immediately after the war, it was the intent of the Allies to get property back to true owners, and make it difficult for anyone else to retain or sell looted art. But nobody realized the magnitude of looting, the lack of records and the amount of confusion in post-war Europe.”
Because there was never a comprehensive, unified response, victims were often left without recourse, even when they could prove ownership. In an effort to assist in the recovery of lost works, Pell formulated a proposal for creating a title-clearing and dispute resolution process that would operate in Europe, where the art was looted. The European Parliament endorsed his proposal in 2003.
Over the last 10 years, Pell has partnered with the Auschwitz Institute for Peace and Reconciliation, an organization working with nations to develop and provide training for government and military officials in genocide prevention. (Pell now also sits on the institute’s board.)
In a compelling use of what Pell calls “the power of place,” the institute hosts its initial training seminars at the Auschwitz concentration camp. There, government officials learn about the societal processes that can lead to genocide, and steps that can be taken to mitigate those processes so as to prevent future atrocities from occurring and to help societies recover from past genocides. The institute then works with the officials to design additional programming for their home countries.
Using the Holocaust as a future-oriented teaching tool means a great deal to Pell.
“In a way, it helps ensure that the victims did not die in vain. I hope AIPR’s work will be my legacy.”