Researching Holocaust-Era Assets Records 1996-1998
Presentation Given at the Society of American Archivists' Government Records Section Meeting, September 4, 1998, Orlando, Florida
Before 1996, most researchers that came to the National Archives who were interested in World War II focused on almost every topic except Holocaust-Era assets. For most researchers, the Holocaust was the greatest murder in history. Few addressed it as the greatest robbery in history.
That all changed in March 1996, when a researcher was sent to the National Archives by United States Senator Alfonse D'Amato, to look for information about Jewish assets in Swiss banks.
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, bank deposits in a Swiss bank made by some 120 Hungarian Jews. To say this was by luck is indeed that, 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. Most of the researchers were involved in research related to litigation and to the production of reports for or on behalf of United States and foreign government commissions as well as those of non-government organizations.
This large number of researchers resulted in actions being taken by the National Archives to facilitate their research. The first action was for me, with the assistance of numerous staff members, to develop in April 1996, a 10-page finding aid to records that seemed relevant to researcher interests. The second action that was taken was in the Fall of 1996 to place selected newly accessioned and declassified records in the hold area next to the research room where researchers would be serviced faster and, because they would be limited to only one of those boxes at a time, the service would also be more equitable.
Among the researchers between the Fall of 1996 and the Spring of 1998, were members of the Interagency Group on Nazi Assets, headed by Under Secretary of State Stuart E. Eizenstat. This group produced, under the direction of William Slany, The Historian, State Department, two reports on looted Nazi assets, particularly gold, and the wartime trade of the neutral countries with the Axis. During the winter of 1996-1997, I produced a 300-page finding aid that served as an appendix to the group's first report in May 1997. As the breadth and depth of research increased I expanded the finding aid to 700 pages in March 1998 (www.ushmm.org/assets) and have continued to expand it to over 1,000 pages by the time of this Section meeting.
Also included among the researchers were members of numerous foreign government and non-government organization commissions. One of the commissions, the Swiss Independent Commission of Experts in October 1997, hosted a small conference in Ascona, Switzerland to discuss research issues. This was followed in London in December 1997, where representatives of some 40 nations met to discuss the looted gold. This December the United States Department of State and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum will host The Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets, a four-day international conference to take place at the Department of State. The day after this conference ends, the National Archives will host a Symposium on Holocaust-Era Assets Records and Research. Both of these events are expected to be attended by over 400 people.
Also having an impact on future research efforts will be two pieces of 1998 legislation. The United States Holocaust-Era Assets Presidential Advisory Commission Act creates a commission that will address Holocaust-Era assets in the United States. The Nazi War Crimes Records Disclosure Act directs Federal agencies to declassify the Holocaust-Era assets records in their custody and transfer them to the National Archives.
Thus for the near future the National Archives will kept busy with researchers doing research into Holocaust-Era assets. But it is not just the National Archives that has, and will be, kept busy with Holocaust-Era assets research. Increasingly State Archives and other archives, especially museum, bank, and corporate, archival institutions, are finding researchers interested in their holdings. It is impossible to say how long the research effort will last nor what twists and turns it will take over the next couple of years, but certainly archival institutions are an important part of the process of bringing justice to the victims of Nazi persecution.