Holocaust-Era Assets

Searching for Records Relating to Nazi Gold: Part I

By Greg Bradsher
Assistant Chief, Archives II Textual Reference Branch
The Record, May 1997

During the past 14 months NARA's Textual Reference Division at College Park has directly assisted more than one hundred researchers interested in records relating to Nazi looted gold, Jewish assets in Swiss banks, and a variety of related subjects. Many of those researchers have spent weeks and months here at College Park on a regular basis going through hundreds of thousands of documents. Not since the "Roots" phenomenon of the mid-1970s that focused increased attention on genealogical records has the National Archives and Records Administration experienced such a large and sustained research activity.

Our so-called "Nazi Gold" phenomenon results, in part, because of the interest of many people, as well as foreign governments, to know what happened to the assets Holocaust victims had placed on deposit in Swiss banks and what happened all the gold that the Nazis had looted from the central banks of Europe. It also results from the desire by many people for a full accounting of the role played during and after the war by the United States Government as well as the neutral countries in their dealings with the Nazi looted assets. These desires began over 50 years ago and will undoubtedly continue well into the future.

Generals Eisenhower and Bradley examine German loot
Generals Dwight D. Eisenhower and Omar N. Bradley (r)
examine a suitcase of German loot stored in a salt mine


For many researchers the search for information begins with records relating to a series of events that took place in Germany during the first week of April 1945. At that time elements of the U.S. Third Army, racing across Germany, stopped at the Kaiseroda Mine at Merkers, because they had been informed by some local residents that the German Reichsbank had, within the preceding weeks, stored gold and other valuables there. Upon entering the mine the soldiers found stacks of gold bars, bags of gold coins, millions of dollars worth of foreign currencies, art treasures, and other valuable assets. When an accounting of the gold was undertaken by the Army, with the help of U.S. Treasury officials, it was determined that the gold was worth about $238.5 million (equivalent to some $2.5 billion today). During subsequent weeks the U.S. Army uncovered gold valued at about $14 million in Reichsbank branches as well as $9.7 million from other sources. In addition the U.S. Army uncovered other significant bodies of Nazi loot, including gold wedding rings found at concentration camps.

The Safehaven Program

The process of identifying, locating, and uncovering of Nazi looted assets had begun well before the discoveries in April 1945. Early in 1944 the U.S. Government became increasingly concerned about Nazis attempting to cloak their assets outside of Germany for personal use, as well as for building another strong Germany after the war. The U.S. Government was also concerned about the neutral countries taking looted gold from the Germans in payment for military and other supplies. As a result of these concerns, the Departments of State and the Treasury and the Foreign Economic Administration began in 1944 an effort, code named variously as the "Safehaven Program," the "Safehaven Project," and simply "Safehaven," to identify and stop the movement of Nazi assets out of Germany and then to locate, recover, and restitute them.

Reichsbank wealth, SS loot, and paintings stored in salt mine in Merkurs, Germany, 1945
In a salt mine in Merkers, Germany in 1945, the 90th Division, U.S. Third Army, discovered Reichsbank wealth, SS loot, and paintings from Berlin

These three agencies, besides having their own intelligence-gathering programs, relied heavily on the Office of Strategic Services, other Federal agencies, and the British Ministry of Economic Warfare, to acquire information about the movement and location of Nazi looted assets, especially gold. This information was gathered not only to use in negotiations with the neutral countries about their dealings with the Nazis but also for restitution purposes after the war.

When the war ended the Allies determined that the Nazis had begun the war with a gold reserve of about $120 million and had seized well more than $600 million in gold from occupied countries, especially Belgium and the Netherlands. The Department of State estimated that the Germans had sold roughly $300 million to Swiss Banks and had laundered about $140 million through Swiss banks for payment of goods from Portugal and Spain. Using gold in payment, the Nazis also directly purchased goods from other countries, primarily Sweden and Roumania, in the amount of $61 million. And it was determined that the U.S. Army had located a total of some $293 million worth of gold.

The Allies, at a reparation conference held in Paris late in 1945, established procedures for the restitution of the gold looted by the Nazis from the central banks of Europe (so-called "Monetary Gold"), as well as for the restitution of "Non-Monetary Gold" (e.g. gold watches and wedding bands). The procedures called for the non-monetary gold to be restituted to individuals and groups of individuals through the auspices of an international refugee organization.

The Tripartite Commission

The procedures called for monetary gold to be turned over to a newly established Tripartite Commission for the Restitution of Monetary Gold that would decide how much gold would be returned to each country that had its central bank gold looted. The so-called Tripartite Gold Commission, composed of American, British, and French representatives, restituted most of the gold in the 1950s after reviewing claims by various countries. The Commission still exists, headquartered in Brussels, Belgium. Its members are presently deciding how to allocate the remaining $60 million worth of gold (in today's dollars).

At the Paris Conference it was decided that the United States and Great Britain would take the lead in negotiating with the neutral countries for the return of Nazi looted gold. Negotiations with the Swiss took place in the spring of 1946 in Washington, D.C. The resulting "Washington Accord" provided that the Swiss return gold only worth about $58 million. This gold was turned over to the Tripartite Gold Commission to be restituted to the countries with claims before the Commission.

The advent of the Cold War, the restitution of most of the monetary gold by the Tripartite Gold Commission in the 1950s, and other factors, resulted in diminishing interest in all the questions surrounding Nazi looted assets. There was, however, Jewish interest in dormant and closed bank accounts in Switzerland, but not enough to cause a groundswell of action. Nor was there much interest in the role played during the war by Switzerland and the other neutrals. 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.

Renewed Interest

But then in March 1996, U.S. Senator Alfonse D'Amato of New York, after talks with the head of the World Jewish Congress, decided the issue surrounding Jewish assets in Swiss banks needed addressing. Thus began a renewed interest in Nazi looted gold and the assets of the victims of the Holocaust. For the National Archives at College Park the interest first manifested itself when someone from the Senator's staff called Clarence Lyons, the Archives II Textual Reference Branch Chief, asking how many people and what period of time would be required to go through the records. Mr. Lyons canvassed several staff members and informed the requestor that it would take a couple of people a couple of weeks. Those couple of people, and scores more, are in the research room at College Park today, over a year later!

Researchers from the Senator's office began arriving at College Park in March 1996 in search of records relating to assets of Holocaust victims and survivors. They expressed great interest in the role of Swiss banks before, during, and after World War II. The Archives II Textual Reference Branch began providing records to these researchers, little realizing the amount of staff time that would be devoted to researchers in search of records at College Park relating to Nazi looted assets, Swiss banks, the Safehaven Program, postwar restitution and reparation activities, and the diplomatic aftermath of the war.

The trickle of researchers that began in March became a small stream after the Senate Banking Committee held hearings on Nazi looted assets and the Swiss bank accounts of the victims of the Holocaust in April 1996. It was not too long afterwards that researchers representing Senator D'Amato, the World Jewish Congress, and the Swiss Bankers Association had found a home at College Park. And others followed, so that by mid summer the small stream had become a river. On any given day during the summer of 1996 the College Park research room had between 15 and 25 researchers doing research in, what the staff termed: the "Nazi Gold" records. And what had actually begun as a quest for information on Jewish Assets in Swiss banks quickly broadened to include Nazi looted gold in Switzerland, Sweden, Spain, Portugal, Argentina, and Turkey.

By mid April 1996, when it became clear to the Archives II Textual Reference Branch that there would be continued research interest in the subject matter, we produced a 10-page finding aid to relevant records. We figured if we had most everything listed, that every time someone asked us about the subject, we could just give them a copy of the finding aid, and be done with it. Things did not work out that way; in part because of the creation of the U.S. Government's Interagency Group on Nazi Assets and in part because the desire for information about our holdings increased the scope of the research always broadening.

The Interagency Group on Nazi Assets

In October 1996, President Clinton appointed Stuart E. Eizenstat, the Under Secretary of Commerce for International Trade, to head a 11-member Interagency Group on Nazi Assets. The group, which I joined on October 31, was tasked with writing a report about what the United States government knew and did during and after the war about Nazi looted assets. I was asked by Dr. William Z. Slany, the Department of State's Chief Historian, who was to draft the group's report, to compile an exhaustive finding aid.

The finding aid was completed, with the assistance of many Office of Records Services-Washington DC staff, in mid-March 1997. Described in its 359 pages are at least 15 million pages of documents, created or received by some 30 Federal agencies, relating to World War II economic warfare, restitution and reparation activities, and the financial and diplomatic aftermath of the war, and the Safehaven Program. Among the 30 agencies are various components of the Military Establishment, including the Office of Strategic Services and the occupation forces in Germany and Austria; the Office of Navy Intelligence; the Department of State, including the Foreign Service Posts; the Foreign Economic Administration; the Office of Inter-American Affairs; the High Commissioner for Germany; the Department of the Treasury; the Foreign Funds Control; the Department of Justice; the Office of Alien Property; the Foreign Claims Settlement Commission; the Federal Bureau of Investigation; the Department of Commerce; the Bureau of Foreign and Domestic Commerce; the Office of War Information, the Office of Censorship; the Foreign Broadcast Intelligence Service; and, the Federal Reserve System. Also described in the finding aid are relevant captured German records, war crimes records, and records from the National Archives' Gift Collection.

The Classification Question

It has been reported numerous times in the press that the reason that all of the attention is now being focused on Nazi looted gold and Jewish assets in Swiss banks is because most of the records remained classified for 50 years. We have had to explain that there is no such thing as a "50-year rule." In fact about 50 percent of the relevant records were never classified. Of those that were classified, approximately 75 percent were declassified by 1982, 15 percent were declassified in 1982-1989, 5 percent in 1990-1994, and 5 percent in 1995-1997. There is a very small amount of records still classified.

During the winter of 1996-97, while work continued on the finding aid, our reference resources were tested. Not only did we have our regular "Nazi Gold" researchers to help, but once the Interagency Group threw itself into the task of gathering information to be incorporated in the Government's report, the summer's river was at flood stage. The Department of State, the Central Intelligence Agency, the United States Holocaust Museum, the Army, the Treasury Department, and the Department of Justice all had researchers at College Park gathering information.

In addition to handling researcher requests for records, we also became involved during the winter in the accessioning of a relatively large and significant body of Department of the Treasury records. We also became involved in March and April in accessioning small, but significant bodies of Federal Reserve Board and National Security Agency records. Thanks to the special efforts of the staff of the Declassification and Initial Processing Division the records were promptly accessioned, declassified, and relocated to unclassified stack areas.

Because of the large number of researchers and the desire for access to the newly accessioned and declassified Treasury Department records, we decided to move some of the more important of those Federal Record Center containers, to the hold area off the research room. That would make them more accessible. This was accomplished during the winter of 1996-97. We also issued special instructions to request and use the records. Specifically, researchers could ask for a box any time, and not have to wait for a regularly scheduled pull-time. Only one box was provided at a time so there would be equal access to the records.

A Sustained Reference Demand

The "Nazi Gold" records have, for over year now, generated a heavy reference demand. During the past year the staff at College Park helped hundreds of researchers, in person or by mail or phone with their research efforts. The researchers include individual claimants; Federal historians; contract historians; print and broadcast media; journalists; authors; representatives of foreign governments and organizations; and law firms. Their reference requests have ranged from individuals and groups looking for specific records pertaining to Jewish assets in Swiss banks to individuals interested in the monetary and non-monetary gold questions.

Researchers have used the information they have gathered at College Park for a variety of purposes ranging from resolving some curiosity to determining whether a bank account may have been opened in Switzerland or a branch of a Swiss bank in the United States. Some of the information gathered has been for purposes of litigation. Information has been obtained for the production of books, articles, news stories, and documentaries. And information has been, and will continue to be, obtained by those desiring a full understanding of some, if not all, of the multiplicity of financial issues involved during and after the war.

The reference demand will undoubtedly continue for some time. We expect another burst of reference activity once the Interagency Group on Nazi Assets issues its eagerly anticipated report. We do not know how many researchers will be prompted by the report and other information that is being made available to start research projects.

Predicting reference demand is sometimes a little difficult. A little over a year ago we did not anticipate there would be a great interest in the Safehaven Program, Jewish assets in Swiss Banks, and a search for answers to questions relating to Nazi Looted Gold. Now, over a year later, as you read this, there are researchers at College Park in search of records relating to the many facets of World War II economic warfare. A year from now there will undoubtedly be more people asking about such records. And the Textual Reference Division will be ready to assist them.

The Finding Aid:
You may access the Finding Aid to Records at the National Archives at College Park at the Department of State's World Wide Web site. The finding aid is the appendix to the Interagency Group on Nazi Assets' Preliminary Study on U.S. and Allied Efforts To Recover and Restore Gold and Other Assets Stolen or Hidden by Germany During World War II. Both the study and the finding aid are available in a PDF format. A link to a free PDF reader is provided at the Department of State Web site.

This article appears in the May 1997 edition of The Record. To be placed on the mailing list for this free newsletter, please contact the NARA Policy and Communications Staff at 202-357-5482 or send your request to inquire@nara.gov.

The photographs used in this article are from the records series: Signal Corps Photographs of American Military Activity; Records of the Office of the Chief Signal Officer, Record Group 111. These images are available from the Still Picture Branch at the National Archives at College Park, MD. A description of this records series is available in the National Archives Catalog.