Holocaust-Era Assets

Testimony of Dr. Michael Berenbaum


I am honored to offer my views this afternoon.

Permit me a personal word of introduction. I am by training a theologian who came to the study of the Holocaust as I grappled with the problem of evil and the presence and absence of a benevolent God. And perhaps more importantly, as I wrestled with the religious roots of regeneration and renewal in the aftermath of catastrophe. I began working in ancient history and then one day a professor told that "you are not asking an ancient question, but the most burning of contemporary questions for contemporary Jews." Thus, I began to read Holocaust literature and never stopped.

For the past two decades I have worked on major projects to memorialize the past, in writing, in the creation of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and most recently in heeding the vanishing voices of survivors by video taping their testimony before it is too late. Thus, at the Shoah Foundation we have taken more than 50,200 testimonies in 32 languages in 57 countries. We have compiled a collection of more than 116,000 hours of testimonies that would take a viewer, watching 24 hours a day, 7 days a week without interruption, well into the winter of 2012-13 to see in its entirety. All in the service of history, all because we believe in the power of memory to record the past and transform the future.

Testifying to the Interagency Working Group, a panel that includes Elizabeth Holtzman, who drafted the historic legislation creating the Office of Special Investigation at the Justice Department in the year

that I first came to Washington to work on the President's Commission on the Holocaust and Eli Rosenbaum, its current and distinguished Director reminds me of just how late this American effort began, more than a third of century after the war, and how long we have been at this important effort.

I must confess that my focus has not been on the pursuit of justice, but on memorialization and education of the Holocaust. I have been focused elsewhere in the great and collective task that we have undertaken to remember the past and to transmit its memory as a warning for the future, as a lesson to our collective future.

We have been trying to salvage something from those ashes, a spark that can illumine the path that lies ahead, a warning of what can happen when the power of modern civilization, its resources, technology and know-how, its management skills and its rationality is harnessed to destructive, dehumanizing values. We have been trying to learn the lessons of the Holocaust, an event of singular uniqueness, but also of terrifying parallels to other mass murders and genocide that have occurred both before and since.

I must also confess that in my scholarly work, I at first belittled the importance of the quest for justice. The crime was so great, the perpetrators were so many, the defendants so few, the history so meager, the verdict was so disproportionate and the interest in justice so reluctant that I could be dismissive. But I was wrong.

Over the past half dozen years, I have worked with the legal teams preparing war crime trials relating to the events in Bosnia and with the efforts, unsuccessful to date, to bring some justice to the shores of

Rwanda. I worked with the lawyers to familiarize them with the distinction between gathering evidence for a trial and preserving evidence for history. Lawyers tend to remove documents from a file to use them for trial. Historians want to see all documents in context. Thus, unless the legal team is precise in its handling of documents, they make the job of the historian so much more difficult. I also saw first hand the desperate need for a judicial proceeding in order to reestablish some semblance of justice in the aftermath of a vast crime and government initiated massive injustice.

The trials of war criminals were needed in ways I could not imagine as a young scholar immediately the war. They articulated new standards of conduct. The Medical Trials at Nuremberg initiated new standards of

Medical Ethics, including such commonly accepted notions as informed consent and the right to halt one's participation is experimentation.

As public events, the trials have transformed the consciousness of the Holocaust in such diverse places as Israel, where the Eichmann trial took place, in Germany, with the Auschwitz Trials. In France, the trial of Barbie and others, which debunked the myth of Resistance, that had been created by no less a historic figure than Charles De Gaulle. Thus, it forced his countrymen to confront collaboration in the deportation, the word that France uses to describe the scope of French participation in the genocide. As for historians,

the trials are an essential way of understanding the perpetrators who are clearly reluctant to write memoirs or to bear witness in efforts such as the Shoah Foundation. They also serve as an important source for scholarship. Both Daniel Jonah Goldhagen and Christopher Browning based their works Hitler's Willing Executioners and Ordinary Men on the trial records, some of the most valuable ways we have to understanding the killer.

Thus, the quest for justice is of major importance, not to redress the wrong - that it cannot do -- but to understand the past and insist on some semblance of accountability by the perpetrators of crimes against humanity. It serves as a warning to young killers that their may be a price to pay, sometime, some day, somewhere, for what has been done, and it may deny them sound sleep and a care-free post-genocide life.

We must welcome this interagency effort to identify and recommend for declassification and release of U.S. government records that relate to Nazi war criminals, war crimes, persecution and looted assets during the Third Reich. It is about time and it is the right time.

It also sets an example to government officials today, who under the cloak of secrecy and for the sake of expediency or even to achieve valuable pragmatic goals that may suggest compromise with important principles. Let them know that many years afterwards, the final judgment on their work, their decision, indeed their reputations will be historical and their decisions may appear quite differently not only through the lens of history, but through the sunlight of open documents and historical records.

It is time to bring the sunlight of historical scholarship to workings of American intelligence agencies with Nazi war criminals as the priorities switched from World War II to the Cold War. It will illustrate the initiatives that were made to recruit German scientists and military weapons development personnel to the American efforts and to prevent their joining the Russian efforts. It will add to our understanding of the Cold War and to our sense of how values and judgment change as conditions and priorities switch.

The Eizenstat Report demonstrated the tensions within the American government between different views of the past and priorities for the future. Two points were clear in his depiction of the tensions between the State Department and the Treasury Department; the State Department was concerned with preserving cordial relationships with Switzerland and the Treasury Department was primarily concerned with tracing the assets and its fiduciary responsibility toward those assets. These were institutional priorities, departmental concerns. There also was an ethnic component to the struggle between the WASP establishment at State and the new arrivals to government service because of the transformation of Washington and of the composition of the United States government, first because of the New Deal and then because of the War effort.

What specific records must you seek to declassify and release. Frankly, I believe that the archivists at each agency know much of what is being hidden and much of what is still classified. Speak with them first.

  • I would recommend that the records of all intelligence agencies, the CIA and its predecessor including the O.S.S. be declassified. Fifty years is sufficient time. Let us see the records. Complete declassification would be appropriate.
  • The records of the Assistant Chief of Staff for the Army - the G-2 records should be of considerable interest.
  • The personnel records as they relate to Nazi war criminals, especially those who at some point or another passed through American hands and may have worked for American governmental sources.

I do not know what will be found in these records — whether embarrassing, exonerating or ennobling, but it is time we find out.

This is a valuable service to the past, and perhaps an even more valuable service to our collective future. We who scavenger among the ashes never know what we may find but openness is the companion of truth - and America is best when it is open to that truth.

Thank you!