A bi-partisan bill aimed at pushing European countries to step up their efforts in returning property to Holocaust survivors and their families seems poised to become law after unanimous passage in the House of Representatives. The Justice for Uncompensated Survivors Today (JUST) Act, as the bill is known, will require the State Department to report on the progress of relevant nations on restitution of property that was “wrongfully seized or transferred” by the Nazis and their accomplices or by subsequent communist regimes. It was passed by the Senate at the end of 2017 and is expected to be signed by the president in the coming days.
“The most important part of this legislation is the message it sends that the issue [of Holocaust restitution] is one of high priority to the U.S. government,” Gideon Taylor, the World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO) Chair of Operations told Hamodia. “There are a lot of areas that we want to see progress in both in communal and personal property, as well as heirless property. Some significant steps have been taken, but the goal of this legislation is to give some of these countries a push to live up to their responsibilities.”
The legislation builds on the Terezin Declaration on Holocaust-Era Assets and Related Issues of 2009, in the city where the Theresienstadt concentration camp was located. Signed by 47 countries, the accord recognized the restitution of Holocaust-era property to its rightful owners as a basic duty of democratic nations. The JUST Act requires the State Department to investigate and report on whether the relevant nations are living up to the Declaration through the adoption of laws and policies that aid survivors and their heirs to identify and reclaim seized property.
In previous interviews with Hamodia on the JUST Act, WJRO representatives have said that while Germany and Austria have taken major steps in dealing with claims, most other nations have done far too little. Additionally, while some nations have taken action to return communal properties such as shuls and cemeteries, little has been done with personal property claims. This inaction is what prompted WJRO to lobby for the JUST Act, in the hope of it being a catalyst of progress on the matter.
The legislation was first introduced in March 2017 by Senators Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), and shortly afterwards in the House by Representatives by Congressmen Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.) and Chris Smith (R-N.J.). Due to the broad support and lack of political baggage for America, it picked up many co-sponsors from both parties and houses and won unanimous approval in the House as well as in the earlier Senate vote.
On Wednesday, a day after the House passage, Sen. Baldwin said the legislation would be a useful tool in encouraging the State Department to prioritize Holocaust-era restitution in diplomatic exchanges.
“As a member of the Appropriations Committee, we have pushed the State Department for years [on this matter], and this law will help aid those efforts,” she said in a telephone press conference hosted by the WJRO. “I presume we will have a new Secretary of State in the coming weeks, and I think pressing the Department to become familiar with the principles of the Terezin Declaration and what needs to be improved is something we need to work on. This bill will serve to exhort the Department to do what they can through our embassies, which will be hugely important in getting real results.”
Even though Poland and Hungary, which have been labeled as among the most recalcitrant nations on restitution issues, were not signatories of the Terezin Declaration, the legislation would require reporting on their efforts as well.
Poland is the only member of the European Union that has not established a national law mandating restitution to Jews and others dispossessed during the Second World War. Last year, the city of Warsaw initiated a process allowing dispossessed owners to claim certain properties. Later in 2017, the Polish government advanced legislation that would create a national framework for the claiming of wrongfully-seized property during Nazi and subsequent Communist rule.
Both moves were criticized by the WJRO and other Jewish organizations, who said that the technical details of these proposals would prevent most Holocaust survivors and their heirs from benefiting. Critics particularly pointed to tenets of the proposed national legislation that required claimants to presently be Polish nationals, as well as “first-line heirs,” and a one-year window to file claims.
A letter drafted by Senators Baldwin and Rubio urging Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki to amend the legislation was signed by 59 other senators of both parties.
“This draft legislation would adversely affect Holocaust victims and their heirs and is therefore of urgent importance to many of our constituents, millions of Americans, and Holocaust survivors around the world,” says the letter. “We believe that the draft falls short of the standards of the Terezin Declaration and — if passed without amendment — would be a failure of justice.”
Mr. Taylor expressed hope that the JUST Act would be an effective tool in encouraging Poland to craft more inclusive legislation on restitution.
“Poland has said that they do want to address this issue [restitution]. Now, it was not done in a way that we thought was satisfactory or appropriate, but there has been a lot of discussion,” he said. “As it is now being considered [by the Polish government], the JUST Act sends Poland a strong signal that the U.S. cares about this issue. The commitment of the U.S. government will be a major factor, and one that we hope will be effective both there and with many other eastern European countries.”