The Commission is an agency of the Government of the United States of America separate from any other agency. It was established by U.S. Public Law 99-83. The law directs the Commission to—
1. 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
2. obtain, in cooperation with the Department of State, assurances from the governments of the region that the properties will be protected and preserved.
Consistent with congressional and presidential intent, the Commission also encourages, sponsors, assists, and otherwise facilitates private and foreign government site restoration, preservation, and memorialization projects.
The establishment of the Commission recognized that the population of the United States is mostly comprised of immigrants and their descendants. The United States has an interest in the preservation of sites in other countries related to the heritage of these Americans.
The Holocaust and 45 years of atheist 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 a historic culture in the area and have importance within 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 competing challenges regarding sites or land that many want to use for other purposes. Some Jewish sites have also been affected by a resurgence of anti-Semitism.
Public Law 99-83 was enacted in 1985. The Commission 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. By tradition, three of the seven members recommended by the presiding officers of each house of the Congress are recommended by the minority leader of the house. 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 of the United States to chair the Commission. The Chair serves as the head of the agency, directing its operations. The current chair is Lesley Weiss of Washington, DC.
The Commission is required to meet twice a year.
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 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.