Society of American Archivists Talk
Friday, August 27, 1999
"The Truth Shall Set You Free: The Archives and the Swiss Banks"
by Gregg Rickman
I want to thank Greg Bradsher as well as the Society of American Archivists for the opportunity to present this paper today on our archival as well as overall experiences exposing the Swiss banks and others for their misdeeds during and after WWII. I am sorry that I could not be here in person to present this paper.
It is unusual that a Senate staffer would ever be given the opportunity to do historical research as part of his official duties and turn the product of that research into policy -- policy that would not only shed light on the illicit practices of an entire nation's financial system, but that would provide a measure of justice for a people so long-deprived after having endured the worst inhumanity that has ever befallen the Jewish people.
Hannah Arendt, in her seminal work, Antisemitism, wrote, [a]ntisemitism reached its climax when Jews had similarly lost their public functions and their influence, and were left with nothing but their wealth." The Holocaust, unique in the history of mankind not only for its brutality and vulgarity, was as we have now come to know the greatest robbery the world has ever known. This new facet of the study of the Holocaust has enlightened and fascinated some, and angered others.
Charles Krauthammer, the syndicated columnist called the August 1998 settlement between the Swiss banks and thousands of Holocaust survivors, "a shakedown of the Swiss banks." I disagree. The settlement between Holocaust survivors like Estelle Sapir, whose case was substantiated by files found in the Swiss National Archives, and Lewis Salton, whose case came to us by way of the files of the U.S. National Archives, was not a shakedown, it was long overdue justice. In less than a year after that historic settlement, both these people have died. Estelle Sapir collected her settlement some months before, yet was unable to hang on any longer to enjoy it. Lewis Salton, never saw the return of the proceeds from his father's Swiss bank account.
As we discovered in three years of intense research at the U.S. National Archives as well as archives in London, Jerusalem, Zurich, and in a few other places, the Swiss banks were only part of the larger story of the systematic thievery carried out upon the economic establishment of the Jewish people. While the Swiss did not invent the scheme to steal from the Jews, they were certainly complicit in the act as were countless others, as we soon discovered. From our research we came to the realization that the Holocaust, as horrific as it was, was but the second act in the Nazi plan for the Jews.
The first act, as Hannah Arendt so aptly describes, was to deprive the Jews of their public function. With only their wealth remaining, they took that too, thus leaving the Jews with nothing. With no role to play in Germany or in Europe, the Jews were, according to Nazi propaganda, parasites that had to be eliminated. This was act two. Simply put, the Nazis acted not only out of hatred for Jews, but jealousy as well. By taking over Jewish businesses, the process of Aryanization, and later by out and out thievery, the Jews were robbed and then murdered.
The Swiss banks, Portuguese, Spanish, French, Austrian, and of course German banks were also conduits for this looting. They were the buyers of aryanized property and the launderers of looted gold, not only from the Central banks of Europe, but from the mouths of Holocaust victims as well.
These institutions provided a source for the Nazis to not only launder their ill-gotten gains, but as proven by lists disclosed in 1997 by the Swiss banks, they still held accounts for Nazis and other fascists. Yet, their role in this horrible affair is even more cynical than that of the Nazis'. At least the Nazis, by their very nature, were expected to steal from the Jews. The Swiss on the other hand, offered their country as a haven for flight capital. Nearly every claimant we spoke to, told of their parents declaring to them their futures were safe because money was being held for them in Switzerland.
Yet, what is particularly galling about the Swiss banks in particular, is that most of their denials of access to accounts of Holocaust survivors occurred after the war when they struggled back to rebuild their lives. As shown by numerous cases, Swiss officials went out of their way to prevent the money from being returned. This is the most inexcusable part of the Swiss story, and the one they have the most trouble explaining. As we have also discovered, other banks were less than willing to come forward with accounts they held for more than fifty years. The money, they all felt, was simply theirs by default.
What must be understood, however, was that all that was discovered about the various banks, chiefly the Swiss banks, was found in long-abandoned boxes in the archives. Records long forgotten, still in the original boxes with the original paper clips and rubber bands as they came over from their respective agencies, carried our researchers, and I dare say the world with them, back to the dark days of WWII.
These dusty records helped expose a continental-wide conspiracy to enrich numerous companies at the expense of a victimized people. Institutions today, confronted with evidence from the past of wrongdoings shutter to think what they do not know about their companies' history. From the international panel investigating the European insurance companies to the thousands of lost paintings and other artworks, to the injustice of uncompensated slave labor cases, the National Archives is providing the information explaining these wrongdoings in order that justice be achieved for the survivors and information established for the record on the history and misdeeds of these companies during the war.
Records long thought to be unneeded and unnecessary suddenly are now very much in demand. When we were in the Archives, we had to stake a claim to entire sets of records in order to ensure, not only our continued access to them, but first access to them ahead of the banks' researchers. In what could only be termed a "war" with the Swiss, not only did we have to find the information first, we had to secure it in order to keep ahead of them and advance the investigation. Never before, had the Archives been faced with a race among its researchers for documents. Most of the archivists were used to a steady pace, but not the one we put them through. What the archivists were providing was the fodder for a three-year war of attrition against Europe's banks, insurance companies, industrial concerns, and art museums. As the saying goes, "Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition."
Who would have thought that documents that were previously disregarded would be cherished as deeply as they were. The investigation began with only a few researchers in the National Archives in College Park, Maryland, and soon spread all over the world. European, Asian, Latin American, and even South African researchers began to investigate their individual countries' histories either in regard to WWII, or in South Africa's case, applying the Holocaust assets concept to the misdeeds of the Apartheid regime. Soon documents were lighting up fax machines all over the world. I personally was sending documents daily to Europe and even to Israel for researchers there.
In the end, a small three-person inquiry turned into an international campaign for long-delayed justice. For those deprived of justice for over half-a-century, their just reward was in the offing. Yet, while no amount of money could ever fully compensate the survivors of man's greatest inhumanity to man, these investigations at least provided a measure of justice and historical rectification reflecting the truth about the times.
When all is said and done and the history of this effort is examined, one will see that we who sought justice sought also to repair an historic wrong. In repairing this wrong, we used the storehouse of history, the National Archives to feed our arsenal. What we found in that storehouse was simply the truth, and as the saying goes, the truth shall set you free.