WASHINGTON—Too many European countries still must act to address claims on property seized during the Holocaust so survivors and their families can see a measure of justice in their lifetimes, leaders of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (U.S. Helsinki Commission) said today.
Chairman Senator Benjamin L. Cardin (D-MD) and Co-Chairman Congressman Alcee L. Hastings (D-FL) convened the hearing “Holocaust Era Assets – After the Prague Conference,” taking testimony from Ambassador Stuart E. Eizenstat, who recently returned from a follow up meeting to the Prague Conference. The Conference set a June 30 deadline for the development of guidelines regarding restitution and compensation of wrongfully seized real estate.
At the fourth Helsinki Commission hearing held on the issue of Holocaust-era assets since 1996, Chairman Cardin mentioned the need for urgent follow through from the governments of Poland and Lithuania. (See photos from the hearing here.)
“Every major political party in Poland has supported draft legislation on property compensation and I hope that the Prime Minister will be able to carry through on his stated commitment to see a general property law adopted,” Cardin said. (See the full statement here.) “In Lithuania, the 1995 property law is needlessly restrictive. I hope the government will fulfill its promises to revisit that law and ensure that communal properties, including schools and places of worship, are returned to their proper owners. Making amends for such crimes and atrocities cannot and should not drag out for yet another generation.”
“There is something terribly perverse about applying the normal rules of inheritance to the extraordinary and tragic circumstances created by the Holocaust,” Co-Chairman Hastings said. (See the full statement here.) “It is just wrong that a government can prevent a man from retrieving his own uncle’s artwork because a law says that uncle has no direct heirs. When whole families were murdered in the Holocaust, I would think such an exception should be made a part of the law.”
“Each year we lose more Holocaust survivors, and that precious generation of witnesses will soon be gone. The failure to return their properties is tragic proof of the axiom: ‘justice delayed is justice denied,’” said Ranking Minority Commissioner Congressman Chris Smith (R-NJ).
Ambassador Eizenstat, Special Advisor to the Secretary of State for Holocaust Issues, testified that despite some progress, implementation remains uneven across the globe.
“Corruption, processing delays, difficulty in obtaining basic documentation, and inconsistent information about the application process have marred property restitution in too many countries,” he said. “In some instances, basic legislation is still lacking. No country has been exemplary in this field, and many have been quite the opposite.”
This hearing comes one year after the Prague Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets, which addressed social welfare needs of Holocaust survivors; restitution of Jewish private and communal property; Judaica and Jewish-owned art that was lost or stolen during the Holocaust and has not yet been restituted; as well as Holocaust education. Senator Cardin led the Senate in authoring a resolution last year supporting the goals of the Prague conference and urging the President to send a high-level delegation to represent the United States.