Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe

Testimony :: Honorable Ben Cardin
Commissioner - Helsinki Commission


Mr. Chairman, I want to begin by thanking you for calling this hearing on property restitution in Central and Eastern Europe, with a particular focus on the state of affairs for American claimants. During this hearing I hope we will examine the restitution and compensation programs established by OSCE participating states, with a particular focus on whether these programs are being implemented according to the rule of law.

After World War II, Mr. Chairman, many Eastern European countries fell under communist control, which led to the denial of basic civil rights and civil liberties for many citizens. Many Holocaust survivors faced a second injustice when communist regimes pursued forced collectivization and mass confiscations of property.

After 1990 many of us in Congress were hopeful that the new democracies would redress some of the wrongs committed many decades ago, including the wrongful seizure of private and communal property. Unfortunately, we have not seen much progress on these issues since the Helsinki Commission last held hearings on this subject in 1996 and 1999. Efforts to return property to former owners have been uneven and often unsuccessful, with practices varying from country to country. No country to date has adopted a “model” law, and the laws that have been adopted are subject to legitimate criticism on a number of grounds. For example, many property restitution laws discriminate on the basis of: residence, citizenship, temporal restrictions, or geographic restrictions. In other countries, Mr. Chairman, the law is not being implemented by the state or being respected by the courts, or cases are unduly prolonged in the judicial system. Furthermore, many countries treat religious communities differently, and give preference to one religion over another. In some countries, such as the former Soviet Republics, no legal framework at all exists for restitution.

In December 2000, Mr. Chairman, I was pleased to assist a constituent of mine, Jacqueline Waldman, in reclaiming her family home that was confiscated during World War II under laws used to deprive Jews of property. During World War II, Aryan Laws were used to seize property and other valuables from Jews and other minority groups. In 1940, using the Aryan Laws, the Romanian government confiscated the property from Mrs. Waldman's father. Since that time, the home has been used by the Romanian government.

In her effort to regain the home, four Romanian courts declared her the "rightful heir"
and ordered the home returned to her. Each time, Romanian officials refused to return the home and appealed the case, once even arguing that the Fascist-era laws used to seize the home were valid when the property was seized, and, therefore, were still valid. In July 1999, Mr. Chairman, I traveled with a Helsinki Commission delegation to Romania and presented Romanian President Emil Constantinescu with a personal letter urging the Romanian government to accept the decisions of Romanian courts returning the home to Mrs. Waldman. The Romanian government subsequently agreed to stop appealing the case and return the property to Mrs. Waldman.

Jacqueline Waldman is a strong woman who would not let an injustice stand. I admire her greatly and I am delighted that the Romanian government decided to do the right thing. Unfortunately, we all know, there are too many situations similar to Mrs. Waldman's. My hope is that Mrs. Waldman's case will encourage them to keep up the fight for what is rightfully theirs. Mr. Chairman, the Helsinki Commission must also speak out on behalf of these victims and the terrible injustices that occurred over a half a century ago.

Mr. Speaker, I look forward to hearing from our panel of distinguished witnesses today, including the Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues from the U.S. State Department, as well as representatives who work on property restitution issues in Poland, the Czech Republic, Romania, and Germany.