Holocaust-Era Assets

Records and Research at the National Archives

Speech given by Greg Bradsher at the Conference on "New Records-New Perspectives: World War II, the Holocaust, and the Rise of the State of Israel" (December 13-16) Hebrew University, Jerusalem, Israel, December 14, 1998

From 1945 to 1995, most researchers that came to the National Archives 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 is the greatest murder in history. Few addressed it as the greatest robbery in history.

That all changed in March 1996, when a young, intelligent, and basically an untrained researcher was sent to the National Archives by United States Senator Alfonse D'Amato, 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 impossible, for survivors of the Holocaust and heirs of victims of Nazi persecution to retrieve.

Her first day in one of the first folders she reviewed, she found, almost by luck, an Office of Strategic Services report detailing in very specific terms, banks deposits in a Swiss bank made by some 120 Rumarian Jews. This was truly lucky, as in the past three years very few similar documents have been found in the holdings of the National Archives. 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.

In 1996, besides Jewish bank account information, research was directed at the monetary, or central bank, gold that the Nazis had looted and that had ended up in Switzerland, Turkey, Spain, Portugal, and Sweden, as well as in Germany.

Beginning in the Spring of 1997, research was launched into looted art; unpaid insurance policies; and non-monetary gold, that is, victims 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.

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 came on September 1, 1998, when the National Archives had some 47 researchers looking at records relating to the various aspects of Holocaust-Era assets. A cottage industry had been born.

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 drives 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 other governments. Commissions were established in some eighteen countries to review the disposition of assets in their countries. The United States Congress in early 1998 authorized $25 million for restitution. A lawsuit was initiated in March 1998 against Ford Motor Company for supposedly operating a slave labor operation at its Cologne plant during the war.

In just the last five months of 1998, two Swiss banks settled a lawsuit by agreeing to pay $1.25 billion to claimants. Numerous European insurance companies contributed $90 million for payments. 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 the American Art Museums Directors Association adopted principles and guidelines relating to the restitution of art work. 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 at The Washington Conference, November 30-December 3, the United States issued 12 principles relating to art restitution and asked other countries to agree to them.

I have identified at least 15 million pages of documentation at the National Archives that researchers have used the past three years in their Holocaust-Era assets research. Most of these records are ones that have been accessible for decades, but frequently overlooked or underutilized. Many of these records had been used for research into non-Holocaust-Era assets topics. These records include those of the Department of Justice's Economic Warfare Section; the Foreign Economic Administration; the Office of Censorship; the Office of Strategic Services; the United States Strategic Bombing Survey; the Department of State, including embassy and consulate records; military intelligence records; captured German records; war crimes records; the records of the United States occupation of Germany, Austria, and Italy; and the records of the Roberts Commission, an organization established, in part, to identify looted art.

Records accessioned since 1995 are also being consulted by researchers. These include 900 cu. ft. of Foreign Funds Control records; more than 200 cu. ft. of records of the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for International Affairs (including some 70 microfilm reels containing records of the Reichbank's Precious Metals Department); 115 cu. ft. of records of the Federal Reserve Board and of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York; some 500 cu. ft. of intercept records from a predecessor of the National Security Agency; 10 cu. ft. of State Department records relating to the work of the Tripartite Gold Commission; 1 cu. ft. of Army Security Agency intercepts relating to Allied negotiations with Switzerland in 1946; Central Intelligence Agency profiles of Emil Puhl, Vice President of the Reichsbank, and Thomas McKittrick, President of the Bank for International Settlements; and, 300 cu. ft. of formerly security-classified Office of Strategic Services records (interfiles from records previously transferred to the National Archives).

What does the future hold in store for the National Archives? The answer lies, to a great extent, in numerous. First, the breath and depth of the research of national commissions. Some eighteen countries have one or more commissions looking into various Holocaust-Era asset questions. Some have already undertaken research at the National Archives and undoubtedly more will. The same is true of non-government commissions and committees, many organized in just the past year. Some of these entities have formed specialized research teams to look into asset questions, such as looted art.

Late this year a United States Holocaust-Era Assets Presidential Advisory Commission was established and President Clinton appointed Edgar Bronfman to chair the group. Once it begins its work, undoubtedly it will have a team of researchers at the National Archives. This Fall the President signed into law the Nazi War Crimes Records Disclosure Act which calls for the declassification and description of Holocaust-Era-related records, including those involving assets. An interagency group, headed by the National Archives, will work to see that government agencies, including the National Archives, comply with the law.

An important consideration in the research is the funding. Numerous groups and organizations desire to undertake thorough research projects, but are hampered by the lack of funds. It is especially true in the field of looted art, where several organizations, if they receive funding, would love to create databases including information on art looters, dealers in looted art, etc.

The final factor is whether scholars join the research effort. Up to now the historians who have been engaged in research and writing has been doing so for commissions, government agencies, and on behalf of litigants and claimants. Almost no historians have viewed the National Archives holdings with the view in mind of writing articles and books. Most of the books that have appeared the past two years have been written by journalists. And most of these works have shortcomings.

Professor Richard Breitman in his recent book Official Secrets wrote that "Governments that withhold critical information from the historical record and the public long after the events do their countries and the world no service." This is indeed true.

At the recent Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets the United States delegation asked some 40 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 of State Eizenstat indicated the other goals could not be attained without the accomplishment of the fifth goal.

Eizenstat went further to say that it was not only opening records that was necessary, but also making them more accessible--and that means making more and better finding aids.

I know you, as mainly historians, can certainly agree with Under Secretary Eizenstat, but simply agreeing is not enough. You need to take action; not be passive historians waiting for records to somehow surface and be made available.

You need to push governments to open their archives. You need to push archival institutions to prepare more and better finding aids. Of course archival institutions will inform you they do not have the funds necessary to make specialized finding aids. Therefore, you will need to help get archival institutions additional funding. And finally, you need to forge closer ties with archivists, who after all, are you allies in the search for truth, justice, and remembrance.