Holocaust-Era Assets

Speech given by Greg Bradsher at the annual meeting of the Society for History Government, Archives II, College Park, MD March 19, 1999

Speech given by Greg Bradsher at the annual meeting of the Society for History Government, Archives II, College Park, MD March 19, 1999

Until 1996, 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 was the greatest murder in history. Few thought of it as the greatest robbery in history.

That all changed in March 1996, when United States Senator Alfonse D'Amato's legislative director Gregg Rickman, who is sitting to my right, sent Miriam Kleiman, sitting to his right, 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 the Swiss banks were making it difficult, if not impossible, for survivors of the Holocaust and heirs of victims of Nazi persecution to retrieve.

Miriam very early in her research located records that contained detailed information about Jewish deposits in a Swiss bank. 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. This included many law firms, including Tom Delaney's, who is sitting to Miriam's right.

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. Much of the research at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) was conducted by the Interagency Group on Nazi Assets, headed by then Under Secretary of Commerce Stuart E. Eizenstat, and which included numerous Federal historians.

As some of you may remember Gregg, Miriam, and I spoke to this organization in April 1997, about what had happened during the preceding year. Early in May 1997, the Interagency Group issued its report on the gold issue and published my finding aid as an appendix to the report. At this point I believed that myself and NARA would not be as involved in Holocaust-Era Assets issues much in the future. But Gregg, Miriam, and Tom, the World Jewish Congress, and many others knew better, and thus we are here again today to update you about what we discussed two years ago.

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. And the Interagency Group, headed by Eizenstat, then as an Under Secretary of State, was tasked with writing another report dealing with the neutrals and their dealings with the Axis and the fate of the assets seized by the Utashi.

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 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.

Class-action lawsuits were brought in late 1996 against Swiss banks. Government studies were produced by the British, American, Swiss and other governments. Various countries and organizations, ranging from the Swiss Federal Task Force and the Holocaust Museum, have established websites. Commissions were established in some eighteen countries to review the disposition of assets in their countries. Organizations have been created to help with the return of assets, such as the New York Holocaust Claims Processing Office and the Holocaust Art Restitution Project. The United States Congress in early 1998 authorized $25 million for restitution. A lawsuit was initiated in March 1998 against Ford Motor Company for allegedly utilizing slave labor at its Cologne plant during the war. And lawsuits were filed against American and foreign banks for their handling of Jewish accounts.

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. 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. At an international conference in December at the State Department, the United States Government issued 12 principles relating to art restitution and asked other countries to agree to them. 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 during February and March of this year, the German Government and German banks and businesses have held negotiations with representatives of lawfirms, the World Jewish Congress, and the U.S. Government to settle the slave labor lawsuits.

Late in 1998, a United States Holocaust Assets Presidential Advisory Commission was established to report on looted and other Holocaust-related assets that came into the control and/or custody of the U.S. Government. Once it begins its work in the Spring of 1999, it will have three teams of researchers at the National Archives and elsewhere conducting research into art, gold, and financial asset issues.

At the November 30-December 3, 1998, Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets, sponsored by the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, the United States delegation, that included Federal historians and archivists, 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 Eizenstat indicated the other goals could not be attained without the accomplishment of the fifth goal.

In the spirit of opening still-classified Holocaust-Era related records, Congress in the Fall of 1998, passed and the President signed the Nazi War Crimes Disclosure Act. This Law calls for Federal agencies to recommend for declassification records relating to Holocaust-Era war crimes, war criminals, Axis persecution, and looted assets. In January 1999, the President signed an Executive Order creating an Interagency Working Group to coordinate the declassification effort. Michael Kurtz, whom many of you know, chairs the group.

Already, Federal historians have been involved with the work of the Interagency Working Group and over the course of the next several years Federal historians will play an important role in identifying relevant records.

Last year ended with a December 4th NARA-sponsored Symposium on Holocaust-Era Assets Records and Research, attended by over 400 people, including representatives of numerous foreign governments. At this symposium, Federal historians from State, Justice, Army, National Security Agency, and the Central Intelligence Agency, presented papers. And numerous Federal historians attended the all-day symposium to increase their knowledge of Holocaust-Era assets related issues. Also on December 4th, NARA launched, under the direction of Lida Churchville, who is in the audience today, our own special Holocaust-Era Assets website

This year has begun with NARA archivists and Federal historians working on various issues relating to Holocaust-Era Assets, particularly with respect to the work of the Interagency Working Group. To assist Federal historians, as well as others, in their research last week NARA published a 1,200-page finding aid to Holocaust-Era asset records. Most certainly, there will be more interaction in the future between NARA and Federal historians in all areas of Holocaust-Era research. If the past two-plus years are any indication, this relationship will further efforts of the U.S. Government and others in their search for truth and justice; or, as Under Secretary Eizenstat frequently says, turning history into justice.