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Jewish Journal

Congressman pledges to end delay to U.S. gift for Auschwitz-Birkenau preservation

by Jonah Lowenfeld

December 23, 2013 | 10:35 am

In 2010, the U.S. pledged $15 million to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation, towards the $160 million endowment that will help preserve the structures at the Nazi death camp -- including the guard towers seen here -- in perpetuity. None of that money has reached the foundation to date, making the U.S. the only country among the 28 supporters of the project that has not made good on any part of its contribution. Photo Peter Thorpe / Courtesy Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation.

Auschwitz-Birkenau, the Nazi death camp where 1.1 million Jews and other victims were murdered, was not built to last forever. But that’s exactly what the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation is charged with doing, and it is collecting $160 million from a group of 28 countries to make that possible.

Germany has pledged $80 million; Poland has committed $12 million; Israel has paid half of its $1 million pledge. The United States joined the group of countries in 2010, when then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said her department would give $15 million to the endowment.

But because of technicalities in the legislative budgeting process, none of that money has been sent to the foundation to date, making the United States the only country not to have made good on any part of its pledge.

As recently as last week, the State Department was reportedly asking Jacek Kastelaniec, the director general of the foundation, if he could be more “flexible,” informing him that it could not release these funds except as a grant for particular projects, not a gift to the endowment.

The State Department did not respond to the Journal’s request for comment, but according to a congressional staffer briefed by a department employee, the State Department believes it needs specific Congressional authorization before it can release the funds – in addition to the vote Congress took in 2010 to appropriate the funds.

The clock is ticking. Payments from 2011 and 2012 – $6 million that has already been appropriated – plus an additional $3 million for 2013 must be explicitly authorized by Congress before the 2013 fiscal year ends on September 30, 2014, according to Kastelaniec. Given the normal progress of budgeting in Washington, that means a legislative fix needs to be found in the first two months of next year.

“There is a lot of good will in the State Department, but there is a problem in the Congress and in the Congressional appropriations,” Kastelaniec said. “Now we have to spend our time on an issue that should not exist.”

Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D – Ill.), who persuaded 45 of his colleagues to sign onto his letters to Clinton and President Obama in 2009 urging the U.S. to join this international effort, has pledged to make that fix.

“Our office was not aware that there was any hold up for the U.S. contribution to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation until the Jewish Journal made an inquiry,” Douglas Rivlin, Gutierrez’s director of communications, said in a statement. “Our office was under the impression that the money was authorized, appropriated, and had been spent in the way that Congress intended.”

Because the State Department did not brief Gutierrez on its decision, Rivlin said, “the issue got lost in the shuffle,” but he expressed optimism that the budget deal crafted by Rep. Paul Ryan (R – Wisc.) and Sen. Patty Murray (D – Wash.) and unveiled earlier this month would allow Congress to get “back to ‘normal’” budgeting.

Gutierrez, Rivlin said, would ensure that the “small adjustment to legislative language” gets made next year, which will allow the money to flow as intended.

For decades, it’s been apparent that Auschwitz-Birkenau, the larger section of the Nazi death camp, would deteriorate without a concerted effort to rehabilitate its buildings. The Nazis demolished the gas chambers and crematoria at Auschwitz in an effort to cover up their crimes; those remains have been further compromised by groundwater seeping into the structures. The freezing and thawing of the ground at Auschwitz -- not to mention the winter weather in southern Poland, where temperatures can range between 0 and negative 20 degrees Celsius -- has further weakened buildings that were frail to begin with.

The 45 brick barracks at Auschwitz-Birkenau, constructed by prisoners during the war, are in dangerously unstable condition.

“Ten years ago, three of them were closed because of the bad shape,” Kastelaniec said, speaking to the Journal from his home in Warsaw via Skype on Dec. 16.  “Today, three of them are open and 42 are closed. And we are putting up some temporary wooden installations to make sure the walls don’t fall.”

The foundation’s $160 million endowment fund will be managed by a six-member committee, tasked with preserving the capital while generating a 4 percent annual return, which will help support the $5.5 million worth of restoration work that will be required to keep the structures standing in their current condition.

Pledges from governments around the world add up to about $137 million, almost half of which has already been transferred to the foundation. The foundation has launched a campaign to raise the balance from 18 individuals, each of whom will contribute €1 million ($1.37 million) to the fund.

Were the U.S.’s $15 million contribution to fall through, the impact on the foundation could be disastrous, and the Polish embassy in Washington has been in touch with the State Department about the matter.

“We are fully aware of how complicated the appropriations process can be, but we still remain very hopeful,” Maciej Pisarski, deputy chief of mission at the Polish embassy told the Journal on Dec. 20. “This is a noncontroversial issue.”

Rabbi Andrew Baker, director of international Jewish affairs at American Jewish Committee, remembered the 2009 push to get the U.S. on board as not being particularly fraught.

“I don’t think it was a hard sell,” Baker, who served for a time on the International Auschwitz Council, said. “I think everyone recognized that it was the right thing to do.”

The consensus that Auschwitz must be preserved -- as a reminder of the attempted genocide of the Jews of Europe, and as a refutation of those who would deny the facts of that Holocaust -- extends far beyond Washington.

“Most countries all recognized the power of this place and felt it was important as a country, as a government, to be supportive of this international effort,” Baker said.

Gifts by federal departments to outside organizations for investment purposes appear to be somewhat unusual, and it’s understandable why a governmental body might be more inclined to make a grant to support a specific project rather than hand money to the endowment of an outside organization.

Still, given the broad base of agreement about the worthiness of the cause, it seems strange that the U.S. funds to help preserve this site of mass murder have been held up for so long. It might have something to do with the relatively small sum of money in question -- $3 million is less than .01 percent of the State Department’s 2013 budget. The department appears to have failed to inform Congress of its opinion about the legislation; Congress itself may have dropped the ball, by operating these past two years without a new budget.

Whatever the reason, Rivlin said that in 2014, Gutierrez would make certain that the money gets to its intended destination.

“Congressman Gutierrez will reach out to his colleagues in both parties as soon as Congress reconvenes to get this matter addressed as soon as possible,” Rivlin said.

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