Holocaust-Era Assets

Investigative Reporters, the National Archives, and the Search for 'Nazi Gold' and other Treasures, by Greg Bradsher

Speech given at the annual meeting of the Investigative Reporters and Editors Kansas City, Missouri, June 5, 1999

I would like to begin by thanking Roberta Baskin [CBS News producer] for asking me to speak to you today. I have enjoyed working with Roberta and other investigative reporters and look forward to talking about the National Archives, an agency who has as its mission, as John M. Carlin, Archivist of the United States, likes to say, "providing ready access to essential evidence." I know that investigative reporters certainly like the sound of "ready access" and "essential evidence." I am sure that a lot of entities with whom you deal are not too eager to provide either.

The National Archives, in its buildings in the Washington, DC area, regional branches, and presidential libraries, has custody of the permanently valuable records of all three branches of the Federal Government. These records reflect their organization, functions, activities, operations, and programs. These records are preserved and made available because in a democracy they document government responsibility and accountability to the people. They provide citizens with a sense of national identity and are of great value to them in establishing and protecting individual and property rights and privileges. These records also provide the basis for understanding where we have been, they help orient us to our present, and they provide guidance for our progress into the future. Within these records are documentation on just about anything one can imagine.

These records are used daily by researchers for an infinite variety of purposes. Sometimes it is for a very specific answer to a who question, such as who received invention patent 800,000. Sometimes it is for a how question, such as how did Army doctors treat shell-shock victims during World War I. Other times, the records are utilized for why questions, such as why did the United States pull out of Vietnam when it did. Then there are what questions, such as what was the Central Intelligence Agency's role in the coup in Guatemala in 1954. There are also the when questions, such as when did Ford Motor Company register with the Securities and Exchange Commission. And finally, there are the where questions, such as where were Japanese-Americans interned during World War II.

Often times with the archives examined, the researcher goes onto other avenues of research, such as looking at public source material or doing Internet searches. But at times the uncovering of certain facts within the archives leads to other facts, and pretty soon an interesting story develops, often simply by chance. This is certainly the case with something with which I and the National Archives have been involved the past three years. Permit me a few minutes to tell you about the so-called search for "Nazi Gold."

The term "Nazi Gold" is a term that has been used euphemistically beginning in 1996 to describe perhaps the greatest robbery in history- that is the massive theft of assets that occurred during the Holocaust. Efforts have been made by governments, attorneys, commissions, and others, including investigative reporters, to take the information in the records and use it by various means to bring some measure of justice to Holocaust survivors and heirs of Nazi persecution; or, at Stuart E. Eizenstat, the Under Secretary of State says, to turn history into justice.

For us at the National Archives the story began in March 1996, when United States Senator Alfonse D'Amato sent a researcher 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 that the Swiss banks were making it difficult, if not impossible, for survivors of the Holocaust and heirs of victims of Nazi persecution to retrieve.

The researcher very early in her work located records that contained detailed information not only about Jewish deposits in a Swiss bank, but also documentation about gold the Nazis stole from the Central Banks of Europe that ended up in Switzerland and other neutral nations. 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 asset, the so-called search for "Nazi Gold.".

Before mentioning what happened, let's backtrack for a second. Why would the Federal Government have collected information about Nazi assets. Most of us tend to think of World War II as a time that intelligence activities centered around the movements of enemy fleets, armies, and air forces. We tend to forget that just as much attention was focused at the time on the movement of assets. After all, it was assets that allowed belligerents to acquire the materials of war. For fifty years few researchers were interested in that part of the story. But that changed in 1996.

In that year, 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. Then beginning in the Spring of 1997, research spun off into looted art; unpaid insurance policies; and non-monetary gold, that is, victims gold taken at the death camps. In the summer of 1997 researchers, especially journalists, 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, especially after 1944, prolonged the war.

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 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.

Time does not permit a full accounting of what has been done as a result of the records and researchers who have used them. But let me just say that since August 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 for claimants, and more millions will be forthcoming. 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. And art work has been returned to heirs. Volkswagen has established a multimillion dollar fund for compensation to former slave laborers. And currently the German Government and German banks and businesses are negotiating with representatives of law firms, the World Jewish Congress, and the U.S. Government to settle the slave labor lawsuits; this amounting to upwards of $2 billion. And just last month Austrian banks offered to settle out of court for $40 million.

Many investigative reporters have participated in the research efforts that have facilitated the just- mentioned results. And like many researchers they are not often ready to deal with archival research. These researchers are subject-oriented and anticipate instantaneous access to documents related to their subject-interest. Unfortunately, in the world of archives, things just do not work that way.

The two key thing for investigative reporters to know about using archives: first, archives are different from libraries and second, we are many years away from being able to find large quantities of individual documents on the Internet. Let me address the second point first. At present for the National Archives it is cost-prohibitive to scan over 5 billion pages of textual government archival records and put them up on the Internet. Given our resources and current technologies, it is safe to say, that in our lifetimes you will probably not be able to access all of our vast holdings by searching by subject and having all relevant documents appear. The best we can hope for is getting our finding aids and other search-tools online. I urge you to look at our website, www.archives.gov, and once you have I believe you will find the National Archives is making great strides in providing information and tools that will help you get started with your archival research.

Once you begin your archival research you will have to do your own digging in the records, looking for nuggets of evidence to piece your stories together. Our website and staff can help pinpoint where you need to look, but it will be for you, in most instances, to do your own research, your own digging into the records. And in doing your research, it is quite important to remember the differences between libraries and archives.

Libraries arrange their books generally by subject. Thus if you want something on gardening, the books will probably be physically together on the shelves. Like wise, library card indexes can also be searched by subject. This is not always the case with archives. Archives are arranged by provenance, i.e., which entity created or received them, and then each series of records of an agency are arranged in some particular order. Sometimes this order is alphabetically by subject, sometimes it is by some type of alphabetical or numerical or an alpha-numeric filing scheme, and at other times it is numerically by some form of case file number, which you would need an index to look up specific case files.

Thus, before jumping into archival research, you need to have some general idea of what agency, or agencies, was responsible for the activity and/or subject in which you are interested. Sometimes this is pretty self-evident, for example mine accident records can be found within the records of the Bureau of Mines. Other times it is not so self-evidence, such as what Federal agency is responsible for the United States participation in World Fairs and Expositions. We archivists are trained to help you with answering these questions, for helping you convert a subject interest into a specific agency or agencies' records. But you need to come with as much background information as possible and with your subject clearly, and narrowly focused.

Again, before starting your research at the National Archives, I would urge you to look at our agency's website. Not only does it provide information about our research facilities and our holdings, but it also provides information on doing research. Archival research can be daunting, but being informed and prepared, well most certainly facilitate your research effort.

Once you begin looking at records, they often give clues where else to look. It is like throwing a pebble into a pond and watching the water ripple outwards in all directions. This is not only true in terms of agencies involved, but related subjects. This has truly been the case with the search for Holocaust-Era Assets which I previously discussed, but it is true with so many other subjects.

To fully utilize archives a researcher needs certain skills, ones that most investigative reporters have, at least I would surmise. You need to have a sense of curiosity, the persistence of effort, self-reliance, and often endless patience. Given these traits, an interesting subject, and our assistance, you should be able to successfully navigate through the millions of boxes of documents and our non-textual records and find what you are looking for, and perhaps even more than you expected to find.

Our mission at the National Archives is to help you and to make the records available. All you need do is ask. Roberta Baskin did and she utilized our holdings to produce a very powerful and moving five-part program for CBS News, a program that we at the National Archives are proud to have had a small role in creating. I will now let Roberta talk about her program and her research at the National Archives. But before turning the floor over to Roberta I want to thank you for your kind reception here today and that I and the staff of the National Archives look forward to assisting you in the important work you do as investigative reporters.