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