SAA Conference Session Archivists Alchemy: Turning Records into Nazi Gold
Friday, August 27, 1999
My Search for "GOLD" at the National Archives
Good afternoon. I was honored to be invited to speak at the SAA conference. I apologize that I could not be here to make this presentation in person, and I thank Rick Barry for his hard work in organizing this session. I know that in leaving you, the audience, with Dr. Greg Bradsher, you are in very good hands.
When I first thought of moving to Washington, I was warned "two topics to avoid are religion and politics." Instead of heeding such sage advice, I moved to Washington the week I graduated from college, and never left.
Today, I will address some important questions, such as: How did this story unfold? How did dusty archival documents shatter the myth of Swiss neutrality, revealing that Swiss banks laundered Nazi money, profited from World War II atrocities, knowingly accepted Nazi loot, and intentionally acted to conceal these assets for 50 years? Lastly, why is this issue unfolding now, 50 years after the Holocaust?
This chapter of the story begins in early 1996. Frustrated by unproductive talks with Swiss banking officials, the World Jewish Congress turned to Senate Banking Committee Chairman Alfonse D'Amato for assistance. On February 23, 1996 Senator D'Amato wrote US Archivist John Carlin, requesting archival information on dormant assets from the Holocaust in Swiss banks.
Assistant Archivist Dr. Michael Kurtz responded three weeks later, writing: "We regret that we cannot undertake the extensive research necessary to identify the exact documents which interest you. We will be pleased to assist your representatives in using our finding aids and to make pertinent records available in our College Park research room." The Senator's office suggested that the World Jewish Congress pursue this lead. Not having a Washington office, the WJC needed a local researcher.
This is where my role comes in... I was called and asked if I had time to do a short research project at the National Archives -- expected to last two days to one week. I accepted, and was sent to meet with Gregg Rickman on March 21. Gregg gave me the letter from Dr. Kurtz, and offered the tip: "Safehaven, explore Safehaven..."
My first day of work at the National Archives II was on March 23, 1996. Although I had research experience, I had never set foot in an archive. I met with a few archivists and started with a cart of 13 boxes from the Office of the Judge Advocate General, War Crimes Branch. On my second day of research, I found a 1945 US intelligence report from Switzerland, on the Societe General de Surveillance, which served in a banking capacity during the war. Noting that the main depositors were Jews, the report listed accounts of 182 depositors from 9 countries, people with names such as Leopold Lustig, Arion Samuel, Isaac Feldstein, Solomon Shapiro, and Maurice Moishe Rothman.
I immediately rushed to Capitol Hill to share this information with Gregg Rickman. Added and adjusted for interest and inflation, the amount totaled over $25 million dollars -- and these accounts were as yet unclaimed, the report stated. This was at a time when the Swiss Bank Association said that only $32 million dollars existed in ALL dormant accounts from the war. This report showed that such information -- historical proof of unclaimed assets in Switzerland -- could be found in US archival records.
Our search continued. One month later, in April, 1996, the Senate Banking Committee held its first hearing on this issue. Research teams from law firms representing the Swiss banks showed up at Archives, and the press followed. To insure equal access and information to all, Greg Bradsher issued a Safehaven "finding aid" -- under 10 pages long. Now, this finding aid is a collector's item, as the latest version is 1,166 pages!
Using this finding aid as a guide, we explored the records of OMGUS, OSS, Treasury, State Department, and Foreign Funds Control. As we tackled box after box, it was fascinating to read more about Safehaven, and to see the myth of Swiss neutrality unravel. We learned that Switzerland supplied the Nazi regime with foreign exchange and war materials, and continued this trade long after any real threat of invasion. In the words of a 1945 Treasury Department memo, "as late as April 1945, the Swiss were in cahoots with the Germans."
In the summer of 1996, the German magazine Der Spiegel noted the importance of our discoveries and our College Park research efforts: "The avalanche of slime from the archives is threatening to bring the entire Swiss banking center, today number one in the world, into lasting disrepute."
At the National Archives, we learned about West Virginia Senator Harley Kilgore, who chaired the Senate Military Affairs Committee in 1945. We found that his Committee, the so-called "Kilgore Committee" discovered that Swiss banks had purchased looted gold from Germany, and concluded that "These moves were made possible by the willingness of the Swiss government and banking officials... to make a secret deal with the Nazis." While it may sound cliche to cite this phrase to a group of archivists, "What is past is prologue." 50 years later, there were similar hearings, investigations, and even similar Swiss press reports.
I am regularly asked: Why now? Why is this issue coming to light now, 50 years after the Holocaust? Operation Safehaven dissolved as alliances and resources were redirected toward the Cold War. 50 years later, there was a unique, bipartisan commitment to this issue on all levels. The survivors, now in their final years, courageously shared their stories, legal teams worked pro-bono, and the researchers -- both amateur and professional historians with a deep commitment to justice -- went through box after box of documents.
Last August, a historic, unprecedented $1.25 billion settlement was reached in the Swiss Banks case. Of course, no monetary amount could ever compensate for the lives lost, the children, parents, grandparents, families, and entire towns that were obliterated. However, a long-overdue measure of justice was achieved. historical record was corrected.
This important work could not have been done without the support and assistance of the National Archives staff on all levels --especially archivist Dr. Greg Bradsher, who demonstrated wisdom, patience, and tolerance in dealing with the continuing onslaught of stressed researchers -- regardless of stance, foreign sponsorship, or disposition.
As Greg knows, it's not over yet. The Research Room at the National Archives is booked to capacity as various teams continue to search for literal and figurative Nazi gold. Buoyed by success of the Swiss Banks litigation, my firm now has lawsuits against German Banks, French Banks, and Austrian Banks, as well as Holocaust-era insurance companies, and German companies such as Volkswagen and Siemens that profited from the use of slave labor.
In conclusion, as a result of my experience at the National Archives, I now have tremendous admiration, respect, and even awe toward the archival community. I applaud you and the important work that you do. Thank you.