CSCE :: Statement :: Property Restitution in the Czech Republic
United States of America
PROCEEDINGS AND DEBATES OF THE 106th CONGRESS, 1st SESSION
Washington, Monday, March 15, 1999
House of Representatives
PROPERTY RESTITUTION IN THE CZECH REPUBLIC
Monday, March 15, 1999
RESTITUTION IN THE CZECH REPUBLIC HON. CHRISTOPHER H. SMITH of New Jersey
Mr. SMITH of New Jersey. Mr. Speaker, I rise today to express my concern over recent setbacks in the return of
expropriated properties to rightful owners in the Czech Republic. As Chairman of the Commission on Security and
Cooperation in Europe, I have followed property restitution issues in Central and Eastern Europe over the past several
years with an eye toward determining whether the restitution and compensation laws adopted in this region are being
implemented according to the rule of law and whether American citizens' interests are protected under the laws. While
restitution and compensation programs in several East-Central European countries have aspects of concern, today I
want to bring attention to the status of restitution in the Czech Republic because of recent troubling developments there.
Since the Velvet Revolution, the Czech Republic has adopted laws that provide for the return of private property
confiscated by Nazi or communist regimes. When the actual return of property is not possible, these laws offer former
owners the right to receive alternate compensation. Regrettably, the Czech laws limit these rights to those who had
Czechoslovak citizenship when the restitution law was adopted or who acquired citizenship before the deadline for filing
restitution claims. As a result, former Czechoslovak citizens who fled to the United States seeking refuge from fascism or
communism earlier this century, and are now American citizens, have been precluded from making restitution claims
unless they renounce their American citizenship. Ironically, had these same individuals fled to Canada, Israel, or any
country other than the United States, they would not have lost their Czech citizenship and would today be eligible to
receive restitution or compensation. This result stems from a treaty signed in 1928 by the United States and
Czechoslovakia that automatically terminated a person's citizenship in the United States or Czechoslovakia if that person
became a citizen of the other country. That treaty was terminated in 1997, but its impact remains: under Czech law,
Czech Americans are not eligible for dual citizenship in the Czech Republic. Therefore, without abandoning the
citizenship of the country that took them in during their time of need, the law denies them the right to receive restitution or
compensation as others have. In other words, the citizenship requirement in the Czech property restitution laws
discriminates against American citizens. Moreover, it is difficult for me to think that this discrimination was simply an
In the 105th Congress, the House adopted my resolution, H. Res. 562, that urges the formerly totalitarian countries in
Central and Eastern Europe to restore wrongfully confiscated properties, and specifically calls on the Czech Republic to
eliminate this discriminatory citizenship restriction. In this regard, the resolution echoes the view of the United Nations
Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) which has concluded in two cases that these citizenship restrictions violate the
anti-discrimination clause (art. 26) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. I recently learned that the
UNHRC has agreed to hear at least four more cases that challenge these restrictions.
The persuasiveness of the UNHRC's reasoning, when it determined that the citizenship restriction in the restitution law is
discriminatory, was compelling. Unfortunately, the Czech Parliament last month debated and rejected a proposed
amendment to the law that would have eliminated Czech citizenship as a condition for property restitution claims. This
approach was widely considered the most effective remedy to a serious problem. In rejecting the amendment, the
parliament missed an excellent opportunity to resolvethis long-standing and contentious issue between the Czech
Republic and the United States.
While I deeply regret the parliament's decision, I hope that the Czech Government will now seek alternative means to
end the discrimination against Czech Americans. In January, several weeks before the parliament voted down the
restitution amendment, Deputy Foreign Minister Martin Palous assured me that his government planned to propose a
new citizenship law that would permit dual citizenship for Czech Americans. I was heartened to learn that last month the
Czech Government introduced this amendment and it is my hope that its early passage will be followed by a reopening of
the claims filing period for those individuals who, by virtue of acquiring dual citizenship, will become eligible for property
restitution or compensation.
Another disturbing situation involves the case of restitution to the ``double victims'' in the Czech Republic--those
individuals, primarily Jews, whose properties were confiscated during World War II by Nazis and then again by the
communists that swept the region in the postwar era. One case, for example, is that of Susan Benda who is seeking
compensation for an expropriated house in the town of Liberec where her father and his brother grew up. Susan's
grandparents were killed by the Nazis and her father and uncle fled their homeland in 1939. The family home was ``sold''
in 1940 to a German company in an transaction subsequently invalidated by a 1945 Czech presidential decree.
In 1994, the Czech Parliament expanded its earlier restitution law to allow individuals whose property was originally
confiscated by Nazis between the years 1938-45 to join those whose property was taken by communists in claiming
restitution. Under the amended laws, Susan Benda is theoretically eligible to receive restitution of, or compensation for,
the home in Liberec. Notwithstanding the Czech Government's purported intention to restore Jewish property seized by
the Nazis, However, the Czech Ministry of Finance has arbitrarily imposed additional onerous and burdensome
conditions for restitution that do not appear in the law and which, in fact, appear designed to defeat the intent of the law.
Beyond the citizenship requirement in the law, the Ministry of Finance has declared that claimants must prove that they
were entitled to file a claim under a postwar 1946 restitution law, that they did file a claim, and that the claim was not
satisfied. Remarkably, Susan Benda found a record in the Liberec town hall which establishes that her uncle returned to
Czechoslovakia and filed a restitution claim in 1947.
Next, the Finance Ministry requires claimants to prove that a court expressly rejected the postwar claim. In a country
that has endured the political and social turmoil of the Czech Republic over the past half-century, the notion that
claimants in the 1990s must prove, not only that a court considered a certain case more than fifty years ago, but also
must produce a record of the court's decision in the case, is outrageous. Susan Benda was able to produce a claim of
title showing that the house was stolen by the Nazis in 1940, confiscated by the communist Czech Government in 1953
and purchased from the Czech Government in 1992 by its current owner-occupant. While Susan cannot produce a
document showing that the court actually considered, and then rejected, her uncle's postwar claim, the chain of title and
the witness testimony confirm that the Benda family never got the house back--in itself simple, dramatic proof that the
postwar claim was not satisfied. Apparently, however, this proof was not sufficient for the Czech authorities and Susan
Benda was forced to sue the Ministry of Finance.
Last September, more than three years after filing the claim, Susan Benda was vindicated when a Czech court agreed
with her assertion that the Finance Ministry should not have attached the extralegal requirements for restitution. The court
ordered the Finance Ministry to pay the Benda family compensationfor the value of the expropriated house.
I wish Susan Benda's story could end here but it does not--the Czech Government has appealed the court decision
apparently fearful that a precedent would be set for other claims--that is, out of a fear that property might actually be
returned under this law. Thus, while the Czech Government proclaims its desire to address the wrongs of the pat, those
who, like Susan Benda, seek the return of wrongfully confiscated property are painfully aware that the reality is much
Another case that has come to my attention involves Peter Glaser's claim for a house in the town of Zatec. After the
1948 communist takeover in Czechoslovakia, Peter Glaser
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sought to emigrate to the United States. To obtain a passport, Mr. Glaser was forced to sign a statement renouncing any
future claims to his home. In 1954, Mr. Glaser became an American citizen; in 1962, the communist Czech Government
officially recorded the expropriation of Mr. Glaser's home in the land records.
In 1982, the United States and Czechoslovakia signed an agreement that settled the property loss claims of all American
citizens against Czechoslovakia. The U.S. Government agency charged with carrying out the settlement advised Mr.
Glaser that, because he was a Czechoslovak citizen when his property was taken--according to the U.S. Government,
this occurred in 1948 when Mr. Glaser was forced under duress to relinquish the rights to his house--he was not eligible
to participate in the claims settlement program but must rather seek redress for his property loss under Czech laws.
When the post-communist Czech Republic passed a property restitution law in 1991, Peter Glaser filed his claim. In a
cruel irony, despite presenting documentation from the U.S. Government attesting to the fact that Mr. Glaser was not
eligible to participate in the U.S.-Czechoslovakia claims settlement program, the Czech Courts have repeatedly rejected
his claim on the grounds that he was an American citizen at the time his property was taken--which, according to the
Czech Government, occurred in 1962. The Czech Government asserts that Mr. Glaser's claims were settled and should
have been compensated under the 1982 agreement. In other words, the current Czech Government and courts have
adopted the communist fiction that although Mr. Glaser's property was expropriated in 1948, somehow the confiscation
did not count until 1962, when the communists got around to the nicety of recording the deed.
This rationalization by Czech authorities looks like a back door attempt to avoid restitution. The reality of what happened
to the property in Zatec is clear: Peter Glaser lost his home in 1948 when a totalitarian regime claimed the rights to his
house in exchange for allowing him to leave the oppression and persecution of communist Czechoslovakia. As the Czech
Government knows, communist expropriations--whether effectuated by sweeping land reform laws, as a condition or
punishment for emigration, or under other circumstances--frequently went unrecorded in land registries, but that did not
make the loss any less real for the victims. For the Czech Government today to cling to technicalities, such as the date
the communists officially recorded their confiscation in the land registry, as a means to avoid returning Peter Glaser's
home is a sobering indication of the Czech Government's true commitment to rectifying the wrongs of its communist past.
Mr. Speaker, the issue of property restitution is complex. No easy solutions exist to the many questions that restitution
policies raise. Nonetheless, when a country chooses to institute a restitution or compensation program, international
norms mandate that the process be just, fair and nondiscriminatory. The Czech Government has failed to live up to these
standards in the cases I cited.
The Czech Government must end the discrimination against Czech Americans in the restitution of private property.
Moreover, the rule of law must be respected. I call on the Czech Government to reconsider its disposition in the Benda
and Glaser cases. Czech officials often say that aggrieved property claimants can seek redress in the courts for
unfavorable decisions. However, when claimants do just that, as did Peter Glaser and Susan Benda, the Czech
Government asserts outrageous or technical defenses to thwart the rightful owner's claim or simply refuses to accept a
decision in favor of the claimant. Fortunately, Mr. Glaser, Ms. Benda, and others like them, have pledged to fight on
despite mounting costs and legal fees that they will never recoup. The passion and determination of Peter Glaser and
Susan Benda, as of all victims of fascism and communism in Central and Eastern Europe, reveal that what may look to
some as a battle for real estate is ultimately a search for justice and for peace with the past.