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The U.S. Commission for the Preservation of America's Heritage Abroad

By Steve Paul Johnson, November 14, 2000

Note: since this article was written, years ago, the Commission has undergone many changes. No longer do they assist with fundraising, and no longer are they providing assistance to the Gottscheer Heritage and Genealogical Association. Please visit their website for the latest: http://www.heritageabroad.gov

- Steve Paul Johnson, June 11, 2003

The United States Commission for the Preservation of America's Heritage Abroad is a little known, yet important, federal agency for family historians. It's goal is to encourage the preservation of documents, memorials, and cemeteries in Central Europe, Eastern Europe, and the former Soviet Union.

The Commission was created by an act of Congress in 1979. It's chief founder, Rabbi Zvi Kestenbaum of Brooklyn, New York, a holocaust survivor, developed the concept of a commission to preserve Jewish cemeteries, monuments and other holy sites throughout the world. He was instrumental in getting federal legislation introduced into Congress to establish the Commission.

Kestenbaum saw a great need to preserve and restore cemeteries in the war ravaged nations of Europe. The damages done by two world wars, the Nazi and Soviet aggression, and even today the battles waged in the former Yugoslavia, have left cemeteries, monuments, and historic structures in ruins. Because the United States is a nation of immigrants, Congress recognized the need to help those nations restore all places of significance to America's heritage.

The Commission is headed up by a Chairman, appointed by the President of the United States. In addition, there are 21 "commissioners", also appointed by the President of the United States. These commissioners meet with local officials and heads of state, as well as genealogical and historical societies, and leaders of religious groups. They tour cemeteries and historic monuments in desperate need of repair. Through these meetings the Commission is able to establish partnerships to restore cemeteries and monuments.

The Commission involved in Cemetery Restoration

The Commission is able to work with foreign governments and special interest groups to restore cemeteries and erect monuments. A Jewish cemetery in Wyszkow, Poland, had been devasted by Nazis during the Holocaust. After deporting the town's Jews to concentration camps, the Nazis removed all tombstones, and used them to reinforce a river bank, which eventually eroded away. Some 200 other stones were used to construct sidewalks, building foundations, and even the floor of the local Gestapo headquarters.

Several descendants of those buried at Wyszkow asked the Commission to assist in recovering the tombstones from the buildings, and to build a memorial to the town's holocaust victims. One of the commissioners spearheaded an effort in conjunction with the town of Wyszkow, the Polish Government, and the Jewish Community of Warsaw, to construct the monument. The Polish government supplied new tablets, and the Commission obtained funding from private donors who traced their lineage back to Wyszkow.

The Commission Using its Influence

In some cases, the Commission may be able to use its influence to leverage cooperation from foreign governments. In August of 1943, the British bombed installations in Germany where V1 and V2 rockets were being developed. To hide the rockets, the Nazis chose to dig tunnels out of solid rock under the Austrian Alps. A concentration camp was set up near Ebensee, and its more than 20,000 inmates were forced to dig. As many as 11,000 Jews died and were buried there before the Americans liberated the camp. After the war, all signs of the graves were removed, and housing construction was permitted on the entire campsite, virtually erasing all trace of the graveyard.

A group of camp survivors, who had now become U.S. Citizens, banded together to seek permission from the Austrian governement to designate a small open area near the old campsite as a Jewish cemetery. A wall would be created carrying the names of victims who perished there. When the Austrian Goverment failed to move on this request, the group asked the Commission for it's assistance. When the Commission approached the Austrian Government about this, the Ministry of the Interior gave its approval to proceed.

The Commission Providing Research Assistance

The Commission is also able to provide valuable research assistance. In early 1945, the U.S. Army provided emergency medical services for a group of liberated concentration camp victims brought to an Army unit located in Hillersleben, Germany. Despite the care, 62 people died and were buried in an unrecorded plot of land near the temporary U.S. Army field hospital. The site was subsequently razed by the East Germans to make way for a park.

A group of American holocaust survivors whose family members were buried at Hillersleben, was able to obtain authorization from the local government to restore the site as a cemetery. However, no boundaries of the plot could be determined well enough to satisfy both the authorities and the preservationists. The Commission was asked to help ascertain the original boundaries. The Commission searched for archival material and aerial reconnaissance photos and was able to produce enough information to satisfy both parties.

The Commission Promoting Projects in the United States

Not all of the work the Commission does is focused at places abroad. As part of its cultural preservation agreement with the Slovak Republic, the Commission upgraded the Washington D.C. burial site of Dr. Stefan Osusky, cofounder of the Czechoslovakian nation and a founder of the League of Nations. Osusky died in exile in the United States in 1973. His grave, at Oak Hill Cemetery, was overtaken by urban development. The tombstone had been repeatedly knocked over by careless traffic on the nearby street. In conjunction with the Republic, the Commission erected an ornamental protective gate at the gravesite, upgraded the landscaping, and cleaned the tombstone. A rededication was held in September of 1999, where one of the Commissioners, and ambassadors of the Slovak Republic and France attended.

Public Involvement

Many of the projects involving the Commission were brought to attention from concerned U.S. citizens. Much of the work so far has been centered around Jewish heritage, but the Commission is open to all family heritage focused in Central and Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Union. Organizations interested in starting a project in these regions can contact the Commission for assistance, fundraising, and to gain approval from foreign governments. This year, the Commission entered into a partnership with the Gottscheer Heritage and Genealogical Association to support preservation projects in Slovenia.

I communicated with Chris Hill, the Deputy Executive Director of the Commission and asked how individuals can help. Hill responds, "We would really appreciate interested parties in completing the survey form, which can be sent to our Research Director, Dr. Sam Gruber". The Cemetery Survey Form is the Commission's primary tool for identifying the locations of cemeteries. Anyone planning to travel abroad is encouraged to download a copy of the form and take it with them in the event they find a cemetery. Says Hill, "Dr. Gruber oversees our survey efforts and is an architectural historian and expert on Jewish cultural sites". You can download a copy from the Commission's site.

Since 1991, the Commission has used these forms to collect data from over 5,000 cemeteries, killing sites, buildings, and mass gravesites. Just recently, they launched survey projects in Latvia and Lithuania. All the data from the surveys are online at the webiste of JewishGen, Inc. There are no burial records in these surveys. Instead, they contain descriptions, locations, and conditions of cemeteries. The survey data can be found at: http://www.jewishgen.org/cemetery/index.html. If necessary, the Commission can assist people with finding records of burials.

The Commission is also interested in learning about cemeteries in danger of being destroyed. Any persons with such knowledge is urged to notify the Commission, who in turn will get involved in protecting them. "We react to reports of cemetery desecration when they are brought to our attention. This, unfortunately, happens with some degree of regularity. We work with our government contacts, both U.S. and foreign, to mediate these disputes", says Hill.

The Commission is also interested in receiving donations from the public. Funds are needed to finance preservation and restoration projects. Says Hill, "We are able to raise funds for preservation work, donations are tax-deductible. We usually hold the funds until directed by an individual or group to release them. We try to help anyone who needs it and have, in some cases, cosponsored projects where preservationists demonstrate a financial commitment to a particular site."

- Steve Paul Johnson

Completed Cemetery Survey Forms can be submitted to:

Dr. Sam Gruber, Research Director
United States Commission for the Preservation of America's Heritage Abroad
123 Clarke Street
Syracuse, NY 13210

For general questions about, to seek help from, or to get involved with, the Commission, contact them at:

United States Commission for the Preservation of America's Heritage Abroad 1101 15th Street, NW, Suite 1040
Washington D.C. 20005

Telephone: (202) 254-3824
Fax: (202) 254-3934

E-mail: uscommission@heritageabroad.gov
Website: http://www.heritageabroad.gov

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