WASHINGTON (Aug. 11)
Congress has approved legislation creating a commission to protect cemeteries and other landmarks in Eastern Europe which are associated with the religious or ethnic heritage of American citizens.
The measure was proposed by Rep. Stephen Solarz (D. NY), a member of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council, and introduced in the Senate by Sen. Edward Kennedy (D.Mass.).
“If we permit the decay and deterioration of the years — or destruction wrought by hostile and uncaring governments — to undermine the cemeteries, monuments, or historic buildings associated with the foreign heritage of U.S. citizens, all of us will lose an important part of our root,” Solarz told the House.
Solarz was also a member of the Councils predecessor group, the U.S. Holocaust Commission, which recommended measures to protect the cemeteries after it heard a plea from Rabbi Zvi Kestenbaum of Brooklyn, New York.
MANY CEMETERIES DESTROYED
“The Commission found that many cemeteries in Eastern and Central Europe were being destroyed by weather and decay or by hostile actions,” Solarz said. “Without vigorous action by our government we risk losing a vital part of our heritage.”
Solarz added that “for nearly fifty years the sacred grave site of our ancestors have been abused, ignored, vandalized and often destroyed.” He noted that in Poland, for example, the last remaining wall of the Warsaw Ghetto was torn down in the mid-1970’s.
Before World War II there were 800 Jewish cemeteries there, of which only 434 remain, only 22 of them in decent condition. Conditions are the same in other Eastern Bloc countries.
“Cemeteries, monuments and historic buildings are often the last visible reminders of the communities our emigrant ancestors left behind,” Solarz added.
FIRST TASK OF THE COMMISSION
The Commission will be made up of 21 members, seven appointed by the President and seven each from the Senate and House. The Commission’s first task would be to publish a list of landmarks abroad associated with the heritage of U.S. citizens.
It would then have the State Department seek assurances from the governments where these are located that they will be preserved and protected. The Commission will also sponsor and support demonstration projects to preserve and protect the landmarks.