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Hearing of the Subcommittee on Europe of the House Foreign Affairs Committee - America's Role in Addressing Outstanding Holocaust Issues

Statement

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Location: Washington, DC


Hearing of the Subcommittee on Europe of the House Foreign Affairs Committee - America's Role in Addressing Outstanding Holocaust Issues

BREAK IN TRANSCRIPT

REP. CHRISTOPHER SMITH (R-NJ): Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman, and especially for calling this important and timely hearing and for your deep and abiding concern in trying to provide in some small way a measure of justice for surviving victims of the Holocaust and what America's role ought to be in resolving outstanding Holocaust issues.

And I do want to join you in welcome Ambassador Kennedy, who is steadfast and so well equipped to do this very, very important work.

Mr. Chairman, very briefly, the Holocaust victims who are here with us today may have escaped death at the hands of the Nazis, but most of them lost everything they and their families had built over generations including their homes, their businesses, their possessions, everything. The Nazis stole billions of dollars worth of assets from private citizens, much of which ended up in the banks in Western Europe. Many victims are still waiting to see at least a portion of what was taken from them, still waiting for the compensation that they deserve. It is our duty to do everything possible that we can do to help them receive it.

For well over a decade, post-communist countries in Central and Eastern Europe have struggled with the question of how to redress wrongful confiscation of property. In some cases, they have made progress, but in others, a lack of meaningful restitution legislation has left claimants and all of us frustrated and angry.

Over the past 10 years, the U.S. and European governments have played crucial roles in helping to settle lawsuits with the banks and have many -- that held many stolen assets, bringing about payments of over $8 billion to victims of the Holocaust and their descendents.

Many of my colleagues and I have pressed hard for years for these advances, traveling to Eastern and Central Europe to urge governments to pass nondiscriminatory laws that could be faithfully implemented. When I chaired, as you know, Mr. Chairman, as Helsinki chairman, now ranking member, I chaired 10 hearings and briefings on addressing property restitution issues since 1996 when we convened a very important hearing that examined competing property claims in post- communist Europe.

We also had a number of hearings on the rising tide of anti- Semitism and took that issue to the parliamentary assembly time and time again to try to get our colleagues in other parliaments on board to fight the scourge of anti-Semitism. We also received a steady stream of letters at the Helsinki Commission from individuals in groups pleading from assistance, and we took every one of those requests to heart and worked on them.

While there has been some progress, the job is far from finished. As Holocaust survivors grow older and their medical and other needs increase, we need to increase our efforts to make sure that these victims receive the compensation they deserve. These people are our friends and neighbors; as we will here from today, reports indicated over 120,000 Jewish victims of Nazi persecution live in the U.S. Some studies, as you pointed out in your opening, indicate that a quarter of them live in poverty.

There are those who would like to move on and suggest that we have already done all that we can rightfully do over the last six decades, but I say we cannot. We cannot until justice is truly done forget those individuals who have been so wronged. Not only have they lost loved ones and families to the Holocaust, those assets remain in wrongful hands.

This is a very important hearing, and again, I thank you for calling it.

BREAK IN TRANSCRIPT

REP. SMITH: Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman.

Let me -- Ambassador Kennedy, you mentioned that you've taken up the issue in Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic, Romania, Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia. You know, how long -- I know you're making a herculean effort to raise this issue and to press whatever buttons have to be pressed to get them to finally act, and several of our witnesses do criticize Poland and some of these countries for not taking action.

But I remember so well in July 18, 1996, when I had Stuart Eizenstat sitting right where you're sitting who was then the undersecretary of Commerce for International Trade. And he made a statement about Czech Republic, how they have done many positive things in the restitution area, talked about their 1991 property restitution law, and went on and on and said there was still problems, particularly with Americans and citizenship laws, you know, the fact that people who were here had a problem with discriminatory citizenship laws.

But he did say, and this is him speaking, "In almost every country I've gone to, I would say virtually in every country I've gone to I've met either with presidents, prime ministers, foreign ministers, other senior ministers; there's a genuine interest now in resolving this issue and coming up to Western norms." That was in 1996. And, you know, for the Holocaust victims and their descendents, how long can they wait?

You know, is there any reasonable reason to believe that the countries that you mentioned really are on the verge of finally closing the door by doing what is right, providing at least adequate restitution to those who survived, and the Czech Republic in particular? You know, all the hopes got raised, and from year to year, as one of the witnesses pointed out with Poland, year in and year out there's hope, legislation is pending, and then nothing.

Could you speak to the Czech Republic and -- I mean, I remember when Eizenstat said said that. We all said wow, maybe we're close to finally coming to terms with this in these European countries. How many years ago was that, 1996?

MR. KENNEDY: Well, thank you very much for that question. I'll have to say that in our office we share a lot of the disappointment and frustration that people feel on these issues.

My visit to the Czech Republic, I wanted to consult with the Jewish community there about a couple of pending issues. I met with the lay members of the community, offered the services of the office of the special envoy, my personal intervention and was told "We think we've got it under control." There are a relatively small number of issues. They're high value, but they prefer to work them on their own.

In general, I think that, you know, we have to recognize that compensation and restitution are very, very difficult issues, particularly in the new democracies. On top of World War II, you then add the communist period and you're 60 years away from the original confiscation, the original injustice, and it becomes harder and harder every year.

I think that one of the most effective things that we can do is keep working with our European friends, reminding them that this isn't an issue that a small number of people care about. Americans in general are very, very conscious of justice, fair play. These are things we care deeply about and the broader view that they can receive of American society, the better off we're going to be, the more it will help us advance these issues.

Access generally to officials is not the problem. The problem is that legislation is difficult. It gets caught up in other legislative fights, and regrettably, that pushes the ball down the road. One of my messages constantly when I meet with legislators is we don't have much time. Holocaust victims, Holocaust survivors and victims' heirs are not getting any younger.

Thank you.

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