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Supporting the Goals and Objectives of the Prague Conference on Holocaust Era Assets

  • Hon. Benjamin L. Cardin


111th Congress, First Session

Mr. President, today I am introducing a resolution to support the goals and objectives of the Prague Conference on Holocaust Era Assets. 

The Prague Conference, which will be held June 26 through June 30, will serve as a forum to review the achievements of the 1998 Washington Conference on Holocaust Era Assets. That meeting brought together 44 nations, 13 nongovernmental organizations, scholars, and Holocaust survivors, and helped channel the political will necessary to address looted art, insurance claims, communal property, and archival issues. The conference also examined the role of historical commissions and Holocaust education, remembrance, and research. While the Washington Conference was enormously useful, more can and should be done in all of these areas. Accordingly, the Prague Conference provides an important opportunity to identify specific additional steps that countries can still take. 

I would like to highlight just a couple of examples that, in my view, underscore the need to get more done.

First I would like to mention the case of Martha Nierenberg’s looted family artwork in Hungary. In a nutshell, Ms. Nierenberg’s family had extensive property stolen by the Nazis, including some artwork. When the communists came along, they took additional Nierenberg family property, and the artwork found its way into the museums of the Hungarian communist regime. 

Under the terms of a foreign claims settlement agreement between the United States and Hungary, the Nierenberg family received limited compensation for some, but not all, of the stolen property. That agreement provided that the Nierenberg family was free to seek compensation for or restitution of other stolen property. 

In 1997, a Hungarian government committee affirmed that two Hungarian government museums possessed artwork belonging to the Nierenberg family. Unfortunately, to this day, it remains in these museums. As I have asked before, why would the Hungarian government insist on retaining custody of artwork stolen by the Nazis when it could return it to its rightful owner? It is entirely within the Hungarian government’s capacity to make this gesture, and I still hope that they will do so–especially bearing in mind Hungary’s own efforts to recover looted art from other countries. 

Second, I deeply regret that the question of private property compensation in Poland is still a necessary topic of discussion. Poland is singular in that it is the only country in central Europe that has not adopted any general private property compensation or restitution law. 

I know a draft private property compensation bill is currently being considered by the Polish Government. I also know that, in the 20 years since the fall of communism, Poland has tabled roughly half a dozen bills on this–all of which have failed. It would be great to see meaningful movement on this before the meeting in Prague, but this will not come about without meaningful leadership from both the government and the parliament. 

Finally, when I was in the Czech Republic last year, I expressed my disappointment to Czech officials, including to Jan Kohout who was just appointed Foreign Minister on May, that the Czech framework for making a property restitution claim effectively excludes those who fled Czechoslovakia and received both refuge and citizenship in the U.S. The United Nations Human Rights Committee has repeatedly argued that this violates the non-discrimination provision of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. This could be fixed, I believe, by re-opening the deadline for filing claims, as Czech parliamentarians Jiri Karas and Pavel Tollner recommended as long ago as 1999. 

The Holocaust left a scar that will not be removed by the Prague conference.  But this upcoming gathering provides an opportunity for governments to make tangible and meaningful progress in addressing this painful chapter of history. I commend the Czech Republic for taking on the leadership of organizing this meeting and urge President Obama to send a high-level U.S. official to represent the U.S. at the conference. 

I am honored that the senior Senator from Indiana, who is the Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is cosponsoring this resolution, as is the senior Senator from Florida.

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