Turning History into Justice: The Search for Records Relating to
Holocaust-Era Assets at the National Archives
Speech Delivered at the annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania August 27, 1999
Are archives and archivists important? As archivists we know they are. So do our users. Two users of archives who utilized them to great advantage are my other panelists today, Gregg Rickman and Miriam Kleiman. How important are the records and archivists to them? On November 18, 1998, The Washington Post quoted Miriam as stating "What's in College Park has rewritten the history of World War II. No Question." In page one of his recently published book Swiss Banks and Jewish Souls, Rickman writes "Were it not for the intense work of the archivists and staff of the National Archives at College Park, Maryland, the details would have remained sketchy and the problem unresolved." What they were referring to were Jewish assets that had either been looted by the Nazis or ended up in dormant bank accounts in Switzerland, and the records that document this.
Until 1996, most researchers that came to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) who were interested in World War II focused on the military, diplomatic, and intelligence aspects of the war, as well as war crimes and the Holocaust. Few were interested in the economic and financial aspects of the war, and even fewer were interested in Holocaust-Era assets. For most scholars, the Holocaust was the greatest murder in history. Few thought of it as the greatest robbery in history.
That all changed in March 1996, when United States Senator Alfonse D'Amato's legislative director Gregg Rickman sent Miriam Kleiman to the National Archives to look for information about Jewish dormant bank accounts in Swiss banks. This was an issue that the Senator had been asked to look into by the World Jewish Congress. This organization believed that there were billions of dollars in accounts that had been established by Jews as a means of safekeeping their assets from the Nazis and the Swiss banks were making it difficult, if not impossible, for survivors of the Holocaust and heirs of victims of Nazi persecution to retrieve.
Miriam very early in her research located records that contained detailed information about Jewish deposits in a Swiss bank. Within a month of her discovery Senator D'Amato, the head of the Senate Banking Committee, held hearings and shortly thereafter began a major, worldwide research effort into Holocaust-Era assets. Realizing the National Archives would be pushed for information about records I prepared a specialized ten-page finding aid to the Safehaven program records, and thought that would be the end of my involvement with the subject. The Safehaven program was an Allied effort between 1944 and 1946 to identify, locate, and recover looted assets.
Despite my belief that involvement in Holocaust-Era assets issues would end with the preparation of the finding aid, in 1996, besides Jewish bank account information, research was directed at the monetary, or central bank, gold worth today some $5 billion that the Nazis had looted and that had ended up in Switzerland, Turkey, Spain, Portugal, and Sweden, as well as in Germany. Much of the research at NARA was conducted by the Interagency Group on Nazi Assets, headed by then Under Secretary of Commerce Stuart E. Eizenstat. As a member of the Group I was tasked with preparing a detailed finding aid.
Early in May 1997, the Interagency Group issued its report on the gold issue and published my 300-page finding aid as an appendix to the report. At this point I believed that myself and NARA would not be as involved in Holocaust-Era Assets issues much in the future. But Gregg, Miriam, the World Jewish Congress, the Swiss and American governments, and many others knew better.
Beginning in the Spring of 1997, research was launched into looted art; unpaid insurance policies; and non-monetary gold, that is, victim gold from the death camps. In the summer of 1997 researchers began focusing on the roles of the Vatican and the Croatian Utashi and their dealings with Jewish assets. Also that summer researchers began seriously looking in the wartime trade of the neutral countries with the Axis to determine whether such trade after 1943 prolonged the war. And the Interagency Group, headed by Eizenstat, then as an Under Secretary of State, was tasked by the President with writing another report dealing with the neutrals and their dealings with the Axis and the fate of the assets seized by the Utashi.
This report would be published in June 1998. In conjunction with the preparation of this report and as a result of the expanding nature of researcher interests, I prepared a 700-page finding aid. In March 1998, it was posted on the website of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. While the preparation of the report and finding aid were taking place, a major world-wide conference on Nazi looted gold was held in London in December 1997 and a smaller meeting was held in Ascona, Switzerland in late October 1997. Bill Slany, the State Department's Chief Historian and I, representing the United States, attended that meeting. After the meeting, in Bern, Switzerland I visited the Swiss Federal Archives, the Swiss Independent Commission of Experts-World War II, and the American Ambassador to discuss Holocaust-Era assets research.
Researchers in the Spring of 1998, began systematically looking into slave and forced labor, the wartime activities of American corporations and banks, and refugee policies of various countries, particularly that of Switzerland.
The high water point of researchers at the National Archives came on September 1, 1998, when we had some 47 researchers looking at records relating to the various aspects of Holocaust-Era assets. A cottage industry had been born. And thanks to Dr. Michael Kurtz and other NARA officials and managers resources were made available to cope with this onslaught.
The result of this research effort has been dramatic and significant. Reporter John Marks in the December 14, 1998, issue of the U.S. News & World Report wrote that "since 1996, when the Holocaust restitution effort gained new momentum" archival institutions "have become drivers of world events. Their contents have forced apologies from governments, opened long-dormant bank accounts, unlocked the secrets of art museums, and compelled corporations to defend their reputations." Actually it has done much more.
Class-action lawsuits were brought in late 1996 against Swiss banks. Government studies were produced by the British, American, Swiss and at least a dozen other governments. Various countries and organizations have established websites. Commissions were established in some eighteen countries to review the disposition of assets in their countries. Organizations have been created to help with the return of assets, such as the New York Holocaust Claims Processing Office, the Commission for Art Recovery, and the Holocaust Art Restitution Project. The United States Congress in early 1998 authorized $25 million for restitution and in 1997, the Swiss established a $200 million fund for Holocaust survivors. A lawsuit was initiated in March 1998 against Ford Motor Company for allegedly utilizing slave labor at its Cologne plant during the war. And lawsuits were filed against American and foreign banks for their handling of Jewish accounts.
Since August 1998 much has transpired. Last August two Swiss banks settled a lawsuit by agreeing to pay $1.25 billion to claimants. Numerous European insurance companies contributed $90 million for payments for claimants. And negotiations, coordinated by former Secretary of State Eagleberger, continue to find ways to increase that amount.
Over a dozen European countries contributed to a Nazi persecutee fund some $60 million worth of gold that was owed them from the Tripartite Gold Commission, an organization established in the wake of the war to restitute monetary gold.
American art museums have begun checking the provenance of their holdings and last Spring the American Art Museums Directors Association adopted principles and guidelines relating to the restitution of art work. At an international conference last December at the State Department, the United States Government issued 12 principles relating to art restitution and asked other countries to agree to them.
Litigation was brought against more than 100 German and Austrian companies for their slave labor practices, and Volkswagen has established a multimillion dollar fund for compensation to former slave laborers. And Since this past February, the German Government and German banks and businesses have held negotiations with representatives of law firms, the World Jewish Congress, and the U.S. Government to settle the slave labor lawsuits. Plaintiffs in the suits are asking for $20 billion. At present the defendants are offering $1.7 billion.
Earlier this summer the State Department created an Office of the Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues and this office is actively engaged in all the subjects I have addressed. In fact, as I speak, that office's director is in Bonn, Germany, holding talks on various Holocaust-Era assets issues.
Late in 1998, Congress and the President created the United States Holocaust Assets Presidential Advisory Commission to report on looted and other Holocaust-related assets that came into the control and/or custody of the U.S. Government. It began its work this Spring, with 15 researchers at the National Archives and elsewhere conducting research into art, gold, and financial asset issues.
At the November 30-December 3, 1998, Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets, sponsored by the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, the United States delegation asked 43 countries present to agree to five goals relating to Holocaust-Era assets, the fifth of which was the opening of all Holocaust-Era records by December 31, 1999. Under Secretary Eizenstat indicated the other goals could not be attained without the accomplishment of the fifth goal--the opening of archives to researchers.
In the spirit of opening still-classified Holocaust-Era related records, Congress in the Fall of 1998, passed and the President signed the Nazi War Crimes Disclosure Act. This Law calls for Federal agencies to recommend for declassification records relating to Holocaust-Era war crimes, war criminals, Axis persecution, and looted assets. In January 1999, the President signed an Executive Order creating an Interagency Working Group to coordinate the declassification effort. Michael Kurtz, whom many of you know, chairs the group.
Last year ended with a December 4th NARA-sponsored Symposium on Holocaust-Era Assets Records and Research, attended by over 400 people, including representatives of numerous foreign governments. Also in December NARA launched its own special Holocaust-Era Assets website. And to further assist researchers NARA this March published a 1,200-page finding aid to Holocaust-Era asset records.
Most certainly, there will be more interaction in the future between archivists and researchers in all areas of Holocaust-Era assets research. If the past three-plus years are any indication, this relationship will further efforts of the U.S. Government and others in their search for truth and justice; or, as Under Secretary Eizenstat frequently says, turning history into justice.
Let me conclude with the same question I began this talk-are archives important? Perhaps my talk has answered that question. But I believe that after listening to Miriam's and Gregg's papers you will give you a even better perspective on just how important archives are.