WASHINGTON —Poland, Romania and the Czech Republic have the worst records in Europe on the restitution of art and other property looted by the Nazis and nationalized by the communists, experts told Congress on Tuesday.
Randolph Bell, the Bush administration's new special envoy for Holocaust issues, faced a tough audience during the hearing, and several lawmakers urged Bell to be forceful in dealing with restitution.
Frequently interrupting Bell, several senators and representatives complained that Central and Eastern European nations ignored their own restitution laws as well as rightful claims by U.S. citizens.
At the same time, lawmakers noted, the formerly communist nations quickly have lined up to join NATO and other international bodies linked to the U.S. and to enjoy the fruits of such membership. Poland and the Czech Republic already belong to NATO, yet neither has responded to U.S. requests for fairer restitution laws and practices, several lawmakers and witnesses said.
"We have to see how we can put some teeth into these recommendations," Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) said to Bell after he urged patience.
Countered Bell, "We're not just toothless talkers."
Like Clinton, several lawmakers were unconvinced.
"In the Czech Republic, a law provides for the return of looted artwork," said Rep. Christopher Smith (R-N.J.), pointing to one of many legal obstacles that European countries place in front of claimants.
"But when the government becomes aware of the intention to return the artwork to the rightful owner's heir, the government declares the artwork a national treasure that cannot be removed from the country."
Precisely this scenario played out for a suburban Chicago man, Gerald McDonald, who was identified last year as heir to a multimillion-dollar art collection owned by his great-great-uncle, Emil Freund, a Holocaust victim. Shortly after McDonald made his claim, the Czech Republic classified the most valuable paintings in the collection as "national cultural treasures" that McDonald could not take possession of.
Bell argued that some advances were being made, with Polish diplomats, for instance, assuring their American counterparts that Poland might pass a restitution law for private claimants next year, though to date no such law exists in Poland. But such incremental triumphs were dwarfed by a litany of horror stories.
In one case in Romania, an individual was required by law to file more than 200 different claims for a single piece of property, said Mark Meyer, New York-based chairman of the Romanian-American Chamber of Commerce.
In Poland, not a single claimant has succeeded in court, even though Polish authorities routinely instruct U.S. officials that restitution should be sought through the judicial system, said Yehuda Evron, a Holocaust survivor and president of the New York-based Holocaust Restitution Committee.
In the Czech Republic, the Finance and Culture Ministries often delay action until claimants die and then deny restitution to their heirs, said Olga Jonas, secretary of the Free Czechoslovakia Fund. That happened to her father, who died four months ago after spending a decade trying to negotiate his way through filing requirements.
The hearing, which was organized by the Helsinki Commission, an independent agency of the U.S. that specializes in issues of human rights, came at an awkward time for Poland, with Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski in the United States this week and scheduled to meet President Bush on Wednesday and Thursday.
In his testimony Bell told the commission that the issue of restitution might be raised during Wednesday's meeting.
But the issue of restitution is a delicate one for the U.S. because the countries that decline to return art and other property typically are allies that the U.S. is not inclined to punish.
"That's just not a viable option," said Rep. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), a longtime advocate for U.S. claimants. "If that's what you do to allies, what do you do to enemies?
"But I'm certain that if these European countries knew that the world's leaders were concerned about this issue, if they felt the angst in this room, they would respond."
Certainly the emotional intensity at the hearing, the first such gathering in three years, suggested that the aggrieved parties are reaching a point of exasperation.
"Poland has failed and refused to negotiate a resolution of the property restitution issues with any survivor group," said Evron.
In the Czech Republic, said Jonas, "Nazi and communist-era confiscations are legitimized by the new government, where former communists still occupy key positions."
The number of cases waiting to be heard has proved staggering, with more than 188,000 claims unanswered in Romania and tens of thousands in several other European countries, according to documents produced during the hearing. The financial toll exceeds $10 billion in Poland alone, according to the Helsinki Commission.
Aside from placing pressure on European governments, witnesses offered a variety of proposals to generate action.
Ambassadors from these nations should be called upon to explain "why--and more important--why not," said Israel Singer, president of the New York-based Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany.
Bush and U.S. diplomats constantly should raise the issue with European leaders, added Evron.
"The U.S. government should impress upon the . . . authorities," Jonas said, "that those being denied property are not simple beggars who can be put through countless bureaucratic hoops in order to prove that the property that is theirs should be returned."