Mr. Chairman, I commend you for holding a hearing on “Property Restitution in Central and Eastern Europe: The State of Affairs for American Claimants.” I would like to welcome our distinguished witnesses for today’s hearing and in particular, the witnesses from New York: Israel Singer, Yehuda Evron, and Mark Meyer.
Property restitution for American claimants continues to be an issue that must be taken seriously by governments and citizens of Eastern and Central Europe. Hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers and other Americans who fled oppressive forces during or after World War II are still awaiting the rightful return of property and justice for the persecution that they and their families suffered. The rapid restitution of assets that were stolen during that horrible period is a critical step towards achieving some measure of fairness.
Today’s hearing is especially timely as the President of Poland (Aleksander Kwasniewski) will meet with President Bush this week. Last year, before President Bush’s June 2001 visit to Poland, I signed a letter to President Bush -- along with several members of the Helsinki Commission -- calling on him to urge the Polish Government to fairly provide for restitution of property confiscated by the Nazi or communist regimes in Poland.
Unfortunately, since that letter was sent, the Polish Government has still not passed a property restitution law. I urge President Bush and the rest of the Administration to raise the property restitution issue with Polish government officials who are visiting Washington, DC this week.
As this hearing will demonstrate, property restitution issues are not limited to just Poland but remain an outstanding, unresolved problem in other nations in Eastern and Central Europe. As we will hear today, progress on this front still needs to be made in Romania, the Czech Republic and Hungary. I urge the Administration to make property restitution issue a top priority with each of those governments.
As the countries of Eastern and Central Europe consider reforming their property restitution laws, they can look to the United States as a leader in considering the restitution of World War II era property. The United States has provided leadership in this area ever since American troops liberated the death camps in World War II. Most recently, the U.S. has been the driving force behind international settlements with foreign governments, the Swiss banks, the European insurance companies, German corporations that benefited from slave labor.
During the Clinton Administration, I took a strong interest in restitution issues and worked closely with World Jewish Congress President Edgar Bronfman in support of restitution for Holocaust victims. In 1998, Congress created the Presidential Advisory Commission on Holocaust Assets (PCHA), to study and report to the President any recommendations for appropriate legislative or administrative actions.
In December of 2000, the 21-member PCHA, chaired by Edgar Bronfman, issued a comprehensive report "Plunder and Restitution: the U.S. and Holocaust Victims' Assets.” The Commission worked with museums to identify the original owners of missing artworks and with banking institutions to trace the trail of hidden bank deposits and to develop banking practices to uncover additional assets. The Advisory Commission emphasized the need for the United States to continue to highlight the importance of addressing asset restitution issues and preserving Holocaust-era archives.
Based on the central recommendation of the Advisory Commission’s recommendations, in December 2001, I introduced S. 1876, the Holocaust Victims' Assets, Restitution Policy, and Remembrance Act. This bill would establish the National Foundation for the Study of Holocaust Assets, an independent entity of the Federal government dedicated to completing research and disseminating information on Holocaust-era assets, as well as developing policy and promoting innovative solutions to outstanding and future restitution issues.
The Foundation will coordinate the efforts of the federal government, state governments, the private sector and individuals here, and abroad, to help people locate and identify assets who would otherwise have no ability to do so. It will encourage policy makers to deal with contemporary restitution issues, including how best to treat unclaimed assets. The Foundation will be the single most effective facilitator of the identification and return of Holocaust-era asserts to their rightful owners and heirs ever supported by the United States government.
I am pleased that Congressman Brad Sherman introduced the House version of this legislation. I look forward to working with my colleagues in the House and Senate to pass this important legislation.
As we continue our work to resolve outstanding restitution issues, I would like to remember Rabbi Israel Miller, a champion and tireless advocate for Holocaust survivors in the United States and around the world. As the President of the Conference of Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, Rabbi Miller demonstrated his peerless sensitivity, leadership and precise moral compass in stewarding the aging community of Holocaust survivors toward a more just destination. I was pleased to speak with Rabbi Miller in February of 2002 when I visited Jerusalem with his son, Rabbi Michael Miller, the Executive Director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York. We all owe a great debt of gratitude to Rabbi Israel Miller for his hard work and commitment to the survivor community.
Mr. Chairman, thank you again for calling this important hearing and I look forward to hearing from each of the witnesses.