The Commission is an independent agency of the Government of the United States of America. It was established by U.S. Public Law 99-83. The law directs the Commission to—
- identify and report on cemeteries, monuments, and historic buildings in Eastern and Central Europe that are associated with the heritage of U.S. citizens, particularly endangered properties, and
- obtain, in cooperation with the Department of State, assurances from the governments of the region that the properties will be protected and preserved.
In addition to the types of sites specified in the law, the Commission also seeks the preservation of similar types of properties, including related archival material. It, additionally, encourages and facilitates private and foreign government restoration and preservation projects.
The establishment of the Commission recognized that the population of the United States is mostly comprised of immigrants and their descendents. Because it is, the United States has an interest in the preservation of sites in other countries. These sites are an important part of the cultural heritage of many Americans.
The Holocaust and 45 years of atheistic, Communist governments created a critical need that led to the Commission’s establishment. The Holocaust annihilated much of Europe’s Jewish population, killing most Jews and forcing others to flee. In many countries, none were left to continue to care for the communal properties that represented an historic culture in the area and constitute an integral part of the Jewish religion. (Burial places are sacred in Judaism)
The destruction, desecration, and deterioration of properties under the Nazis persisted under subsequent Communist regimes. Additionally, Cold War tensions hindered access by Americans who wanted to ensure preservation of the sites.
Many properties continue to be endangered. Governments and communities in the region face fundamental and competing challenges. Some Jewish sites have also been affected by a resurgence of anti-Semitism.
The Commission was established in 1985 by Public Law 99-83. It began its operations when it received its first appropriation in Fiscal Year 1990.
The Commission consists of 21 Members appointed by the President. Of these, seven are appointed in consultation with the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives and seven are appointed in consultation with the President Pro Tempore of the U.S. Senate. The Members are appointed for three-year terms, although they continue to serve until they are replaced. They are not paid for their service.
One Member is designated by the President to chair the Commission. The current Chair is the Honorable Lesley Weiss of Washington, DC.
The Commission is required to meet every six months. It is assisted by a small staff.
On a day-to-day basis, much of the Commission’s work consists of addressing problems regarding specific sites that are raised by U.S. citizens, federal officials, or others, and assisting U.S. citizens and groups with restoration, preservation and site marking projects.
Assistance is generally provided through interventions with foreign government officials and sometimes provided through Commission sponsorship or co-sponsorship of the projects. In some cases, technical assistance is provided, funds are raised, and the Commission receives contributions on a tax-deductible basis and transfers the monies to local contractors for Americans.