WASHINGTON – Members of the United States Helsinki Commission have written to the Deputy Prime Minister of the Czech Republic, Pavel Rychetský, urging his government to remedy discrimination against American citizens in the Czech Republic’s property restitution and compensation laws.
Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ), Ranking Member Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-MD), and Commissioners Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-MD) and Sen. George V. Voinovich (R-OH) joined together, calling on the Czech Government to accommodate the claims of Czech-Americans whose properties were stolen from them and their families and to provide them with a remedy for their losses on an equal basis with other Czechs who have received a remedy under Czech laws.
Dozens of individuals have contacted the Helsinki Commission for support after their claims for property restitution were denied by the Czech Government or courts due to their lack of Czech citizenship. In some cases, the property of Czech-Americans has been put up for sale by the government while the original owners sought to reclaim their assets. This issue was raised with Czech officials during the debate over NATO enlargement. At that time (1997), leading members of the Czech Senate indicated that the law would be changed to enable Czech-Americans to make claims.
Under laws enacted in 1991 and 1994, Czechoslovakia (later the Czech Republic) initiated a program to return, or compensate for, land and dwelling places confiscated by the Nazis or the communists. The laws limited restitution or compensation to applicants who had Czech citizenship at the time they applied for restitution or compensation.
Approximately 30,000 Czechoslovak emigrés who sought refuge in the United States during and after World War II automatically lost their Czechoslovak citizenship under a 1928 U.S.-Czechoslovak Treaty of Naturalization when the emigrés became U.S. citizens. Following a relevant United States Supreme Court ruling, the treaty became unenforceable in the U.S. in the 1960s. Czechoslovakia did not have a similar treaty of naturalization with any country other than the United States. As a result, naturalized citizens of countries other than the United States were able to maintain their dual citizenship and thereby satisfy the citizenship requirement in the Czech property restitution law. The text of the letter follows:
March 26, 2001
H.E. Pavel Rychetský
Deputy Prime Minister of the Czech Republic
Úøad vlády ÈR
Nábøeži Edvarda Beneše 4
Praha 1 PSÈ 118 01
Dear Mr. Deputy Prime Minister:
We write to express our ongoing concern about discrimination against American citizens in the Czech Republic’s property restitution and compensation laws. As you may know, property restitution is an issue of long-standing concern to many Members of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe. The Commission has been contacted by dozens of individuals who are unable to receive restitution or compensation for expropriated property because of their citizenship. Our letter is prompted by news that, in one such case, the property administration office in Prague recently initiated the sale of one quarter of an apartment house—house no. 2337, and parcel of land no. 3477, located in Smichov, Graficka 30, Praha 5—which is claimed by two American citizens, Ota and Kamil Gschwind. We urge your government to extend the filing deadlines in laws no. 87/1991 and no. 116/1994 so that Czech-Americans, including Messrs. Gschwind, may finally have their property restitution claims adjudicated and equitably resolved.
The predicament faced by Ota and Kamil Gschwind is indicative of the situation faced by many Czech-Americans. It is our understanding that legal ownership of this apartment house was eligible under Czech law for return to its rightful owners, Ota and Kamil Gschwind, but for the fact that they are naturalized American citizens who were not eligible to reclaim their Czech citizenship in time to apply for restitution or compensation. The discriminatory effect of this citizenship requirement could not be more clear. Messrs. Gschwind wish to recover an interest in property that their mother inherited from her father. Their mother is not alive to reclaim possession of the property because her life was brutally ended by the Nazis. Her sons are prohibited from receiving restitution solely because they chose the United States as their refuge from communism and became American citizens, thereby losing their Czechoslovak citizenship by operation of the 1928 Czechoslovak-U.S. Treaty on Naturalization. Had they emigrated to any country other than the United States they would not have lost their Czechoslovak citizenship and, thus, would not have been excluded from your country’s property restitution program.
Mr. Minister, the post-communist Czech Government could not hope to make redress for all of the injustices committed prior to 1990. Nonetheless, having recognized the injustice done to Czechoslovak citizens through property expropriations during the periods 1941-1945 and 1948-1990, and having recognized the moral compulsion to remedy that injustice through restitution or compensation, it is then wholly arbitrary and discriminatory to deny a remedy only to those who became citizens of the United States.
In the fall of 1997, a multi-party delegation of Czech Senators visiting Washington indicated that the barriers to property restitution and compensation for Czech-Americans would be resolved through a two-step process. First, legislation would be passed to allow Czech-Americans to regain their Czech citizenship. Second, legislation would be passed to extend the claims filing deadlines established in laws no. 87/1991 and no. 116/1994. Accordingly, we were encouraged to learn of the adoption of new citizenship provisions in 1999 that ended the ban on dual citizenship for Czech-Americans. That development fostered our hope that your Cabinet would introduce legislation to extend the claims filing deadlines; regrettably, this second step has yet to be initiated.
We respectfully request your assistance to prevent the Property Administration Branch of the Regional Office of Prague District No. 5 from selling the above-referenced apartment house or taking any other action prejudicial to Messrs. Gschwind’s claim to the property. Additionally, we request that the filing period for property claims be reopened in order to accommodate the claims of Messrs. Gschwind and other Czech-Americans whose properties were stolen from them and their families and to provide them with a remedy for their losses on an equal basis with other Czechs who have received a remedy under Czech laws.
STENY H. HOYER, M.C.
BENJAMIN L. CARDIN, M.C.
CHRISTOPHER H. SMITH, M.C.
GEORGE V. VOINOVICH, U.S.S.