The U.S. ambassador to the European Union has embarked on a visit to East European nations in an effort to encourage governments there to compensate Jews for property seized by the Nazis and the Communists.
Stuart Eizenstat’s visit, which began in Hungary and Poland this week, comes in the wake of a congressional letter to Secretary of State Warren Christopher, urging him to pressure East European countries to make property restitution a high priority.
Eight congressional leaders, including House Speakers Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) signed the letter, which came at the urging of Edgar Bronfman, president of the World Jewish Congress.
The members of congress warned that the relationship between East European nations and the United States could suffer if these governments failed to respond appropriately.
In a letter to Dole last week, Wendy Sherman, the State Department’s assistant secretary for legislative affairs, said Eizenstat would be on “a special mission to advance our efforts to encourage appropriate restitution of — or compensation for — property confiscated from the Jewish community and others.”
The letter called on the government in the region to “develop a fair and non- discriminatory” approach to restitution that addresses the victims of Nazi oppression as well as victims of the Communist oppression.
According to the WJC, East European governments are still in possession of billions of dollars worth of property and assets seized by the Nazis during World War II and later confiscated by the Communist regimes.
The East European governments “were stonewalling us” on these issues, said Elan Steinberg, WJC executive director.
Bronfman, WJC president, also serves as chairman of the World Jewish Restitution Organization, the international Jewish body that oversees restitution negotiations with local governments.
The organization includes representatives from Israel, the international Jewish community and the local communities involved.
Eizenstat’s visits to the nation;s in the region are “meant to inform them that this issue is important to the U.S. government,” Steinberg said.
According to Steinberg, Slovakia and Bulgaria have made the most progress in resolving restitution issues. The Czech Republic and Poland have presented the biggest obstacles, he said.
In her letter to the members of Congress, Sherman said the most potential for progress is “in the area of communal property restitution.”
She said Poland and Hungary have established government commissions to process and evaluate communal property restitution claims.
The Polish Parliament is expected to consider a draft bill later this month that proposes returning Jewish communal properties to the Jewish community of Poland or other local communities, she said.
She predicted that the issue of personal property restitution “may be more difficult,” especially in cases in which direct heirs cannot be identified or properties are currently held by private third parties.
Meanwhile, Hungarian Justice Minister Pal Vastagh completed a three day visit to Israel, where he discussed the restitution issue with Israel representatives of the World Jewish Restitution Organization.
The justice minister said the restitution problem is a tricky one. Hungarian sources say the lack of unity in the Jewish community concerning the amount and size of the restitution claim is hindering the talks.
The Socialist-Liberal Hungarian government coalition, which has been in office almost one year, has expressed sympathy for Jewish restitution, but no tangible steps have been taken thus far.
Steinberg said he got positive feedback from the meeting in Israel.
“There is a great amount of interest in resolving this issue on both sides,” Steinberg said.
But there is still much to be accomplished before Hungarian Prime Minister Gyula Horn is scheduled to visit the United States next month, Steinberg said. “Restitution is a high priority on the bilateral agenda between the U.S. and Hungary,” he said.