Holocaust-Era Assets

Turning History into Justice: Holocaust-Era Assets Records, Research, and Restitution

War and Civilization Lecture University of North Carolina-Wilmington, North Carolina
April 19, 2001

Greg Bradsher

From the end of World War II until five years ago the Holocaust was primarily viewed as the greatest murder in history. And indeed it was. But since the spring of 1996 it has become ever more apparent that the Holocaust was also the greatest robbery in history. The Nazi-era witnessed the direct and indirect theft of well over $150 billion of tangible assets of victims of Nazi persecution.

This evening I will be discussing this robbery, efforts to right the wrongs of the past, and the importance of archival research to the restitution and compensation process.

The process of taking assets began with Aryanization of Jewish property in the 1930s; followed by the looting of real, personal, intellectual, and cultural property throughout the war; and the looting of gold from the central banks of occupied countries. The process even involved the taking the gold filings, rings, and other valuables of those murdered in the Final Solution.

Art was a favorite target of the Nazis and the Nazis looted some 600,000 pieces. Many items were subsequently sold to raise funds to support the Nazi war machine.

There was also the indirect lost of wealth by victims of Nazi persecution. To protect their assets many European Jews during the 1930s sent funds to one or more of the over 400 Swiss Banks. Many of the depositors who were victims of Nazi persecution did not survive the war and often neither did their heirs. Thus the Swiss banks, which never close an account, kept the deposits, estimated today as being worth over $1 billion. Additionally, survivors and heirs found it difficult, if not impossible, to withdraw funds for lack of a secret bank account number or the lack of a death certificate; something that the Nazis did not create at the death camps.

Many Jews in the 1930s bought property and death insurance policies assuming that insurance would provide them or their heirs with financial protection. During the war, German authorities systematically confiscated the insurance policies of Holocaust victims, as well as cashing in policies once the insured person was murdered. Survivors and heirs after the war found it difficult, if not impossible, to have insurance companies honor policies. Often lack of a death certificate or lack of a copy of an insurance policy precluded payments.

Another form of indirect lost of monies was the Nazi uses of forced and slave labor. Some 12 million people, many from Poland and Russia, were forced into labor on behalf of the Third Reich. Some were minimally compensated. Most were not.

The Allies were well aware of the thefts taking place in Nazi Europe and did take action during and after the war to identify, locate, and recover Nazi looted assets. This was done to keep the Nazi war machine from using the looted assets to acquire items it needed to continue the war and to provide restitution to those who had lost property. During the course of tracking, recovering, and restituting the looted assets some 30 agencies of the US Government created well over 30 million pages of records. These records had an importance then for administrative, fiscal, and legal purposes. These same records certainly have an importance today.

A most important concern of the Allies was the Nazi theft of some $6 billion dollars (in today's dollars) of central bank gold. The discovery of hidden gold in Germany in the last days of the war and subsequent negotiations with neutral countries that had acquired the looted gold, resulted in the Allies being able to recover about two-thirds of the stolen gold. Some of this gold was non-monetary gold, some of which had been re-smelted and merged with monetary gold and some was gold watches and wedding bands, as well as victim dental gold.

After the war the Allies provided that the non-monetary gold be restituted to individuals through the auspices of an international refugee organization. The monetary gold was turned over to a Tripartite Commission for the Restitution of Monetary Gold (TGC) that would decide how much gold would be returned to each country that had its central bank gold looted. The TGC, composed of American, British, and French representatives, restituted to claimant countries most of the gold in the 1950s.

The advent of the Cold War, the restitution of most of the monetary gold, and other factors, resulted in diminishing interest in all the questions surrounding Nazi looted assets. It should be noted that immediately after the war, survivors were primarily concerned with putting their lives back together and did not have the energy or means to regain what was lost. And many Jews were reluctant to pursue what was rightfully theirs, mostly out of fear that their efforts would fuel anti-Semitism and because they did not want to relive the horrors of the Holocaust-era. Also, many initial claims were meet with resistance and obstruction from the holders of the assets, and thus subsequent efforts to regain property were never pursued. Few countries, companies, and banks, unfortunately, made any concerted efforts, if any at all, to find the heirs of victims.

Some restitution and recovery of assets, however, was forthcoming. Many assets, such as cultural property and works of art, were recovered and restituted by the US Army occupiers in Germany, Austria, and Italy. The government of the Federal Republic of Germany began making substantial reparation payments to Holocaust survivors, heirs, and to the state of Israel and signed bilateral agreements with more than a dozen countries set up pensions and annuities for victims in western Europe. But, during the Cold War, the communist regimes in Central and Eastern Europe prevented Holocaust survivors and heirs from receiving such payments. There was some Jewish interest in dormant and closed bank accounts in Switzerland and some Swiss banks, pushed by Israel and others in the early 1960s, undertook a relatively inadequate attempt to ascertain how much they held and to return it. Identified and returned to depositors or their heirs, beginning in 1964, was about $2.5 million.

Questions periodically arose about the restitution of assets, but not enough to cause a groundswell of international action. For all intents and purposes the issues surrounding looted assets exited from center stage. For 40 years there was not much interest in Nazi looted assets and almost no research.

That all changed in early 1996 when Edgar Bronfman, head of the World Jewish Congress, asked Senator Alfonse D'Amato, the head of the Senate Banking Committee, to investigate the supposedly large quantities of dormant Jewish bank accounts in Swiss banks. Bronfman believed that there were billions of dollars in accounts 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.

When the senator agreed to look into the matter, it touched off a renewed interest in Holocaust-Era Assets. For the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) the interest first truly manifested itself in March 1996, when D'Amato sent a researcher to Archives II to look for information about Jewish dormant bank accounts in Swiss banks. Very early in her research the researcher located records that contained detailed information about Jewish deposits in a Swiss bank. Within a month of her discovery D'Amato's Senate Banking Committee held hearings on Nazi looted assets and the Swiss bank accounts and shortly thereafter began a major, worldwide research effort into Holocaust-Era assets.

This research effort, along with diplomatic, political, legal, moral, and economic pressures, have prompted countries, organizations, and companies to come to gripes with the past and to agree to help in the process of righting the wrongs of the past. During the past several years progress has been accomplished in various aspects of Holocaust-Era assets.

Early in October 1996 class action lawsuits were filed in the U.S. District Court in Brooklyn against the two largest Swiss Banks alleging that they had blocked the survivors' efforts to reclaim money that was directly deposited in the banks or that the Nazis had looted and stored in the banks. The plaintiffs sought $20 billion in compensation.

Responding to the negative publicity, the Swiss in December 1996, created an independent commission of experts to spend five years studying the Swiss role in World War II. Early in 1997, the Swiss established a $200 million fund for Holocaust survivors. This fund would grow to over $400 million by 1999. Responding to economic and legal pressures, the Swiss Bankers Association and the Swiss government persuaded Paul Volcker, former head of the Federal Reserve Board, to head up an international committee to oversee the auditing of dormant bank accounts to ascertain how much of these accounts belonged to the Holocaust survivors and heirs. To assist Volcker the Swiss Government lifted, for five years, Swiss Bank Secrecy Laws. During the latter half of 1997 the Swiss began to publish names of Holocaust-Era dormant accounts. Eventually, in August of 1998, the Swiss Banks agreed to a $1.25 billion out of court settlement. Although the settlement had been reached, it still remained for the court to work out the details as to who would receive compensation. Those details were finalized last year. At the time the lawsuit had extended its original reach. In addition to Nazi victims with Swiss accounts, the settlement ultimately identified four other groups of potential beneficiaries, including those whose looted assets had found their way into Switzerland, slave laborers, and refugees who were turned away by Switzerland. Four Swiss insurers are adding $50 million to the settlement and over 35 Swiss companies, including food giant Nestle, whose wartime subsidiaries used slave labor are making financial contributions to the settlement fund, in the expectation it would cover any possible claims against them.

During the summer of 1996 some prominent members of the British Parliament began taking an active interest in looted Nazi gold and they tasked the Foreign and Commonwealth Office with preparing a report on the Nazi looted gold. The report was quickly published and immediately it raised internationally questions about the gold, and indirectly, about the actions of Switzerland during the war. The British report would set in motion the U.S. Government getting involved, and providing political clout to the process of seeking the truth about the past and putting that information to work in the process of providing compensation to victims of Nazi persecution.

During the late summer of 1996 Edgar Bronfman explained the Holocaust restitution issue to the President. Clinton agreed to help with the issue and to work with D'Amato. In early September 1996, the Clinton tasked Stuart E. Eizenstat, then Under Secretary of Commerce for International Trade, as well as Special Envoy of the Department of State on Property Restitution in Central and Eastern Europe, to prepare a report that would describe U.S. and Allied efforts to recover and restore gold the Nazis had looted from the central banks of occupied Europe, as well as gold taken from individual victims of Nazi persecution, and other assets stolen by Nazi Germany. To accomplish this task Eizenstat established in October an 11-agency Interagency Group on Nazi Assets. I was my agency's representative. Dr. William Z. Slany, the Department of State's Chief Historian, had the responsibility for drafting the group's report. He in turn asked me to prepare a finding aid to relevant records. Slany formed his research team, consisting of researchers from the Departments of Defense, Treasury, Justice, and State, the U.S. Holocaust Museum, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the Federal Reserve Board. They soon made the National Archives their home.

In May 1997 the Interagency Group issued its report, with my 300-page finding aid serving as an appendix. The report, based primarily on NARA's holdings, focused on what U.S. officials knew about Nazi looting of gold and other assets and how the United States attempted to trace the movement of looted gold and other assets into neutral and non-belligerent nations, and to recover the assets from these nations as well as from occupied Europe. The report was quite critical of the Swiss and the other World War II neutrals.

Within days of issuing its first report, the Inter Agency Group on Nazi Assets was asked to prepare another report dealing with the neutrals and their financial and economic dealings with the Axis. Thus, in the summer of 1997, its researchers from three federal agencies began to do their research again with NARA's assistance. As research was getting underway news stories, based on NARA's holdings, about the Vatican's Holocaust-Era assets involvement, particularly the assets stolen by the Croatian Utashi and sent to the Vatican, prompted President Clinton to direct Eizenstat, who at the time was the Under Secretary of State, to also study the fate of the assets seized by the Croatians.

In late 1996, the TGC was in the process of deciding how to allocate the remaining $60 million worth of gold. The United States asked it to delay the final distribution until the non-monetary gold issue could be further studied, primarily to determine the degree which the monetary gold was tainted with non-monetary. At the London Gold Conference in December 1997, attended by representatives of 41 nations, countries that were entitled to the remaining TGC gold were asked not to take their final payment but instead donate it to a Nazi Persecutee Relief Fund. They were asked to do so because research at the National Archives and elsewhere had proven that some of the monetary gold was tainted with non-monetary gold, and thus should go to people rather than countries. Nazi victims who lived in the former Soviet Union, who are often referred to as "double victims," were the first to get aid from the fund because in many cases they did not get compensation that was paid to Holocaust survivors who lived in Western Europe. To get this fund established Eizenstat committed our Government to contribute $5 million even though the United States was not a TGC claimant. By the summer of 1998 some dozen countries had contributed their TGC share in the amount of over $50 million.

The second Eizenstat report was issued in June 1998. The report provided a detailed analysis of the economic roles played by the neutral countries and the factors that shaped those roles. Prominent in the report was a focus on those countries' trading links with the Axis, as well as on their handling of looted assets, especially gold. Also addressed in the report was the fate of the Croatian Ustashi treasury and the Vatican's role during and immediately after the war. Also noted in the report was that the postwar negotiations that the Allies conducted with the wartime neutrals was protracted and failed to meet fully their original goals: restitution of the looted gold and the liquidation of German external assets to fund the reconstruction of postwar occupied Europe and to provide relief for Jews and other non-repatriable refugees. This resulted from the intransigence of the neutrals after the war, dissension within Allied ranks, and competing priorities stemming from the onset of the Cold War.

Early 1997 witnessed a renewed interest in looted art, especially after Museums were being identified as possibly having and indeed having looted art. This interest prompted some museums, auction houses, and art dealers to undertake provenance research on their holdings. By the end of 1998, the search for looted art, according to two British authors, "had become the greatest treasure hunt in history." This may be an exaggeration but the search for looted art certainly became an important aspect of the art world. And several countries, including France, established commissions to look into the possibilities of looted art in their countries.

In this country Congress during the spring of 1998 held hearings on the subject and in June the American Association of Museum Directors adopted guidelines calling for a review of their members' collections to identify works of art of dubious provenance. The international aspects of looted art and cultural property began in December 1998 with the four-day Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets that was held at the Department of State. Attending the conference were over 400 representatives from 43 countries and a dozen non-governmental organizations. A dozen principals dealing with looted art and cultural property were adopted at the conference. To determine how well countries were following the principals the Council of Europe sponsored another conference. This conference was held last October at Vilnius, Lithuania, at which representatives of 37 nations and 17 non-governmental organizations met to discuss looted cultural property. The Forum adopted a declaration that had six sections dealing with the restitution of looted cultural property.

Since 1997 looted art has been clearly identified in numerous countries including the United States and various settlements regarding the looted art have been made.

In October 1998 an International Commission on Holocaust-Era Insurance Claims was established by Italian, German, French, and Swiss insurers, U.S. regulators and Jewish groups, to settle unpaid insurance policies. Former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger heads the commission. To show their goodwill two of the major insurance companies Italy's Generali and Allianz of Germany set up a $150 million fund to cover claims. The Commission is working closely with the companies, and some progress has been made, such as last summer when Generali agreed to pay all valid claims from Holocaust survivors and heirs; to give the Commission access to its archives; and to post on its website names of the firm's policy holders.

A lawsuit was initiated in March 1998 against Ford Motor Company for allegedly operating a slave labor operation at its Cologne plant during the war. During the course of 1998 and 1999 some 50 lawsuits were filed against more than 100 of German and Austrian companies for their slave labor practices. The plaintiffs in the suits asked for $20 billion in damages.

The Swiss bank settlement prompted several top German firms to come forward and say they would set up a restitution fund and during 1999 the German government agreed to compensate Holocaust survivors in the former Soviet bloc, thereby reversing their Cold War policy against such compensation. To settle the various lawsuits, in July 2000 an agreement was signed by representatives from Germany, the United States, eastern Europe and Israel, and U.S. attorneys to provide former forced and slave laborers $4.8 billion, half from the German government and half from over 3,000 German companies. As a way of encouraging additional contributions the U.S. government agreed to give $10 million to the new slave labor fund.

Between January 2000 and this past January France, Austria, Belgium, and the Netherlands agreed to pay some $1.5 billion dollars for compensation of various types, including seized property, forced labor, unpaid insurance policies, and seized bank accounts.

Up to now I have spoken about the past and current efforts to right the wrongs of the past. The political, diplomatic, moral, economic, and legal pressures that have contributed to paying the victims of Nazi persecution and their heirs did not just happen in a vacuum. Without records and research, and NARA's assistance the progress that has been made to date and will continue to be made would not have happened.

Since March 1996 the National Archives and Records Administration's Archives II Building in College Park, Maryland has been visited and/or contacted by well over one thousand researchers interested in records relating to Holocaust-Era assets. Many of those researchers have spent weeks, months, and even years at Archives II going through millions of documents. The high water point of Holocaust-Era assets researchers came on September 1, 1998, when there were 47 of them. Many of these researchers represented law firms engaged in litigation and many were foreigners. Foreign researchers and representatives of a dozen foreign commissions looking into their countries' handling of victim assets found NARA an important resource to supplement the information available in the archival records in their own countries. Representatives of foreign banks, governments, archives, and corporations have also come to do research.

It started in 1996 with gold and Jewish bank accounts. In 1997 art works and insurance, and non-monetary gold [that is, victims' gold from the death camps, such as dental gold], and the role of the Vatican were added; in 1998 slave labor, alleged American and foreign bank misdeeds; looted archives and libraries; and Jewish communal and religious property were being studied. At the end of 1998 Lord Janner, who heads the London-based Holocaust Educational Trust, stated the "hunt for Nazi loot has turned into the greatest treasure hunt in history. We don't know where it will end." Since he made those remarks the research has broadened to encompass looted diamonds and securities, as well as the role of American corporations in their dealings with the Nazis.

To assist researchers I began early in 1996 to prepare special finding aids to relevant records; first 3 pages; then 10 pages; then 125; and for the First Eizenstat Report in May 1997 a 300-page guide to the records. During the summer1997 as the research widened to more countries and more subjects, there was a great desire for an expanded finding aid to relevant records. I produced a 300-page supplemental finding aid in the fall of 1997. It was placed on the Department of State's website in November 1997. During the winter of 1997-1998 I prepared a revised and enlarged finding aid. This finding aid, some 750-pages, was placed on the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum's website in March 1998. In March 1999, NARA published my 1,100 page guide to some 15 million pages of records created or received by over 30 Federal agencies.

To further assist researchers I was urged by the Department of State to have NARA hold a records and research-oriented conference the day after the Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets ended. This one-day event, Symposium on Holocaust-Era Assets Records and Research, was held at Archives II on December 4, 1998. Over 400 people, including representatives of numerous foreign governments attended. Eizenstat gave the keynote address. He stated "It is truly remarkable to reflect on the sheer amount of research that is being conducted and the new archival sources that has been unearthed in just the past few years." Furthermore, he added "I am particularly proud to say that our country was a leader in this effort to advance the process of archival research…The National Archives…has become a focal point of research, scholarship, and remembrance into the issues surrounding Holocaust-era assets." He concluded his remarks by stating "The National Archives can be proud of the positive role it has played both in bringing justice, however belated, to the survivors and memory to the deceased." During the course of the day NARA launched it assets website.

Growing out of the desire to declassify still-classified Government records Congress in October 1998 enacted the Nazi War Crimes Records Disclosure Act of 1998. This law required Federal agencies, including NARA, to review and recommend for declassification records relating to Nazi war crimes, Nazi war criminals, Nazi persecution, and Nazi looted assets. By the end of March over 3 million pages have been declassified and it is expected another 7 million pages will be declassified under the Act.

By the summer of 1998, there were upwards of 20 national commissions looking at what had happened to assets in their respective countries. Many of those involved in the assets issue believed that the United States should have its own commission to look at Holocaust-Era assets that came into the control and/or custody of the United States Government. Congress reacted to this desire by enacting a law in July establishing the Presidential Advisory Commission on Holocaust-Era Assets in the United States and in October President Clinton appointed Edgar Bronfman to chair the group. Also serving as members of the Commission were Eizenstat and eight members of Congress. The Commission's research staff, numbering over 20 individuals spent considerable time at the National Archives between the spring of 1999 and the last fall doing research. The Commission presented its report and recommendations to President Clinton in mid-January of this year.

Early on the importance of records and getting to the truth was recognized. The records NARA held and its staff assistance was, and has continually been appreciated. This began in May 1997 in the first Eizenstat report. The author, Dr. Slany, in his preface wrote "All of the research depended directly upon the unfailing support, assistance, and encouragement of the…National Archives and Records Administration. Our work simply could not have been carried out without this assistance…" Senator D'Amato, on the floor of the Senate in June expressed his appreciation, stating "The National Archives at College Park has been nothing less than amazing… Their help was indispensable in establishing, continuing and expanding the research of the Committee."

Eizenstat in December 1998 speaking about archival openness took the opportunity to thank NARA for its work in helping his interagency group and the foreign commissions. "NARA archivists," he said, "continue to provide extraordinary assistance and information to the many governmental and private researchers who have traveled to the Archives to consult documents available nowhere else in the world." Later in his talk he stated "I cannot fail to mention the truly remarkable measures taken by my own government: making available and fully accessible to researchers by May 1997 at the National Archives more than 15 million pages of documents-….And the work has gone forward without pause at the National Archives with new and important files being found, described, and made available for research."

By the end of 1998, the importance of archives as a result of Holocaust-Era Assets research had been clearly demonstrated. Reporter John Marks in the December 14, 1998, issue of the U.S. News & World Report wrote, "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."

During the past five much has been accomplished towards bringing justice and compensation to victims of Nazi persecution. But those working so hard to achieve the financial settlements know that no amount of money could ever compensate for the atrocities of World War II. And they also know that much still needs to be done, and done quickly as the number of Holocaust survivors decreases every year. Many issues, both old and new, are still unresolved. Thus, undoubtedly, interest in Holocaust-Era assets issues will continue for years, if not decades. And just as certainly, archival research throughout the world will accompany the interest in the various asset-related issues.

Archival research at NARA coupled with research undertaken elsewhere, have contributed immeasurably to countries, corporations, banks, and other institutions, being more capable of addressing their pasts and accepting their current responsibilities. Archives have the past five years and will in the future serve as important resources in the search for truth and justice, and as Stuart Eizenstat frequently says, turning history into justice.