Holocaust-Era Assets

Searching for Records Relating to Nazi Gold: Part II

By Greg Bradsher
NARA's Assistant Chief, Modern Military Records
The Record, May 1998

"Everyone should understand the role of the records in establishing and legitimizing identities and liberties." So began a letter to the editor of Time Magazine (March 17, 1997) by John W. Carlin, Archivist of the United States. "The dramatic case of the search for Nazi gold is an excellent example of the value of records not only in documenting historical facts but also in preserving essential evidence," he continued. "For us at the National Archives and Records Administration," Carlin concluded, "the role of preserving and providing access to this essential evidence of history is at the core of our mission." Indeed, NARA's holdings of records relating to "Nazi Gold" and its ability to make those records available in a timely manner has demonstrated the importance of NARA not only to this country but to peoples, governments, and organizations in other countries.

The search for what has become known as "Nazi Gold" records began in March 1996, when researchers from Senator Alfonse D'Amato's office began coming to Archives II at College Park looking for records relating to World War II-era dormant bank accounts of Jews in Swiss Banks. Within weeks the research expanded into issues surrounding looted Nazi gold and other assets. By midsummer 1996, the research room at College Park was the host of at least 15 researchers daily-sometimes as many as 25-conducting research in "Nazi Gold" records. These records, contained within 30 record groups and comprising some 15 million pages of documentation, were like a magnet, drawing increasing numbers of researchers as the summer progressed.

In the early fall 1996, President Clinton asked then Under Secretary of Commerce Stuart E. Eizenstat, who also serves as Special Envoy of the Department of State on Property Restitution in Central and Eastern Europe, to prepare a report that would "describe, to the fullest extent possible, U.S. and Allied efforts to recover and restore this gold [gold the Nazis had looted

Hebrew and Jewish books and "Saphor Torahs" from many countries were among uncovered Nazi loot
Hebrew and Jewish books and "Saphor Torahs" from many countries were among uncovered Nazi loot (NARA-111-SC-209154)

Soldiers inspect vault in which Bank of Italy had stored 23 tons of gold
Soldiers inspect vault in which Bank of Italy had stored 23 tons of gold 

SS Major Kurt Baron Haller Von Hallerstein admitted that he had buried nearly a million dollars worth of securities and jewelry near Garmisch, Germany.  Hallerstein (center) watches with Tec 4 Frederick Wolinsky, New York, NY, as his brother Helmuth Baron Haller Von Hallerstein, digs. May 25, 1945 
SS Major Kurt Baron Haller Von Hallerstein admitted that he had buried nearly a million dollars worth of securities and jewelry near Garmisch, Germany.  Hallerstein (center) watches with Tec 4 Frederick Wolinsky, New York, NY, as his brother Helmuth Baron Haller Von Hallerstein, digs. May 25, 1945   (NARA-111-SC-380425)

18th Century Hebrew books uncovered in Heidelberg, Germany
18th Century Hebrew books uncovered in Heidelberg, Germany (NARA-111-SC-342901)

NAZI GOLD (Cont.) 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." Eizenstat, in October, formed an 11-agency Interagency Group on Nazi Assets, including NARA, to do the research and produce the report, under the direction of William Z. Slany, Historian, Department of State. 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 Archives II their home.

During the next 5 months the demands on NARA's staff were enormous. Not only were both government and non-government researchers making relentless demands for records, often the same records at the same time, but also relevant records were accessioned from the Department of the Treasury in November 1996, and the Federal Reserve Board in March 1997, and declassified under great pressure to make them immediately available.

While research was being conducted during the fall of 1996 and the following winter, the media discovered that an important aspect of the "Nazi Gold" story was NARA: its records, its staff, and its researchers. Thus, journalists and documentary film makers began appearing on a regular basis during the winter of 1996-1997, and the first stories highlighting NARA's role appeared in November 1996 in USA Today and in early February, 1997, in Le Monde. Time also ran a cover story in late February regarding the quest for records relating to "Nazi Gold."

The NARA-Swiss Connection

Starting in the winter of 1996-1997 and continuing since, Archives II has become a gathering place for prominent individuals representing various groups involved in the "Nazi Gold" phenomenon. This has been particularly true of the Swiss, because their country was the initial and primary focus of the "Nazi Gold" story. The NARA convention to the Swiss has become a very close one, in part, because of an agreement between the United States and governments. This agreement, signed in early 1997, by then Under Secretary Eizenstat and Ambassador Thomas Borer, head of the Swiss Federal Task Force, provided that their respective countries, including national archives, would closely cooperate.

Among the Swiss visiting Archives II have been a member of the Swiss Federal Task Force; a member of the Swiss Parliament; the first secretary of the Swiss Bankers Association; the chairman of the Independent Commission of Experts (looking into all facets of World War II Switzerland), and four commission members; and, members of the Swiss Embassy staff. Researchers representing the Swiss Bankers Association began their research at Archives II in spring of 1996, and were joined in July 1997, by a four-member research team from the Bergier Commission.  Other researchers including accountants from the Volcker Committee (created by the Swiss Bankers Association and the World Jewish Congress to investigate deposits made in Swiss banks by victims of Nazi persecution), have also found NARA a useful source of information.

During the past year NARA and the Swiss Federal Archives have developed close ties. There have been frequent communications between Dr. Christoph Graf, the director of the Swiss Federal Archives, and NARA. In November 1997, I visited Dr. Graf and the Swiss Federal Archives in Bern. I also met with Madeleine Kunin, America's Ambassador to Switzerland, and Jacques Picard, a member of the Swiss Independent Commission of Experts, to discuss ongoing research and NARA's critical role in what President Clinton stated was one of the aims of his Administration-to "bring whatever measure of justice might be possible to Holocaust survivors, their families, and the heirs of those who have perished."

Corporal Donald Ornitz examines painting in underground
Corporal Donald Ornitz examines painting in underground vault (NARA-111-SC-374692)

The Media Interest

By the spring of 1997, NARA had become a magnet for the media as well as researchers. The media, unable to obtain stories from those government historians researching and drafting the Eizenstat Report, found that much of the document base upon which the report would be derived was in NARA. Not only were the documents reviewed and filmed, but researchers and NARA staff members were interviewed. Feature stories appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Times, The Jewish Times, and The Cleveland Plain Dealer, among other newspapers.

Also, major periodicals such as Newsweek and US News & World Report contacted NARA for information. The History Channel, the Arts and Entertainment Network, the Public Broadcasting Service, and the Cable News Network ran specials based on interviews with NARA staff and researchers.  Press interest continued since May1997. ABC News, Dateline NBC and a wide variety of print and visual media have regularly contacted NARA, as have Swiss TV, Swedish Public Radio, and numerous film makers, newspapers and magazines.

The First Eizenstat Report

On May 7, 1997, the Interagency Group on Nazi Assets, headed by Ambassador Eizenstat, issued its report entitled U.S. and Allied Efforts to Recover and Restore Gold and Other Assets Stolen or Hidden by Germany During World War II: Preliminary Study. The report, based primarily on NARA's holdings, was quite critical of the Swiss and the other World War II neutrals. The author of the report acknowledged NARA's contributions to the completion of the report. In his preface he wrote "All of the research depended directly upon the unfailing support, assistance, and encouragement of the Archivist of the United States and the staff of the National Archives and Records Administration. Our work simply could not have been carried out without this assistance…It is to the credit of the National Archives staff that the needs of researchers-government and private, domestic and foreign-were met with unfailing courtesy and without disruption to research schedules."

Special Finding Aids

With the help of NARA staff and others, I prepared a 300-page finding aid to the records at Archives II. This finding aid served as the appendix to the Interagency Group's report. This report and finding aid were issued on May 7, 1997, and immediately made available at the Department of State's website and sold by the U.S. Government Printing Office. When the research widened to more countries and more subjects, and there was a great desire for an expanded finding aid to relevant records, we issued a 300-page supplemental finding aid in the fall of 1997. It was placed on the Department of State's website in November 1997. A revised and expanded finding aid, some 750-pages, was placed on the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum's website in March 1998 at www.ushm.org/assets/nazigold.htm.

New Records

In 1996, the Clinton Administration urged agencies to transfer relevant records to the National Archives. In 1997, the Central Intelligence Agency transferred Office of Strategic Services records, as well as biographical profile documentation on Thomas McKittrick, the wartime president of the Bank for International Settlements, and Emil Puhl, the Reichsbank vice-president. The National Security Agency, on the day before the report was released, transferred to NARA copies or Army Security Agency intercepts of communications between the Swiss legation in Washington and the Swiss Foreign Ministry in Bern, Switzerland. Although their records are not federal records, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York sent to NARA two cubic feet of copies of pertinent materials. During the summer of 1997, the Department of Justice transferred to NARA a major body of Office of Alien Property Trading With the Enemy Act case files. All of the records accessed were immediately declassified, if this had not already been done, and made available and used by researchers.

Reichsbank Records

Among the most significant bodies of records uncovered have been those of the Reichsbank's Precious Metals Department. These records were greatly sought after during the spring of 1997 by two Federal agencies and other researchers because it was believed these records would document conclusively how much of the looted German gold acquired by the Allies was composed of non-monetary gold, that is gold that came from victims of Nazi persecution, including such things as gold teeth. The records, discovered on April 1, 1997, consisted of some 70 reels of microfilm contained in a small box within a recently accessioned Federal Record Center box of Treasury Department records. There was great excitement. The microfilms, which dated back to 1948 and not accessioned by NARA until November 1996, were not in the best condition. However, NARA reproduced the microfilm and made it available to researchers on April 4, 1998.

The discovery of the records was the subject of two Associated Press stories, and on May 7, 1997, Under Secretary Eizenstat "rolled out" the Interagency Group's report at the State Department, he had on blown-up page of the records on an easel behind him. Unfortunately, the records were found too late to be used on a regular basis by research teams for the past year. Interestingly, the story does not end at this point, because in 1948 the US Army did not microfilm all of the records, both those filmed and not filmed, were turned over to the successor bank, and they have since disappeared. Thus, during the past year there has been a search throughout Europe to locate the original records.

More Researchers

In the wake of the Eizenstat report, more researchers found their way to College Park. Not only were the researchers, including claimants, continuing to seek information about looted Nazi gold and related topics, but the boundaries of research had widened to include questions relating to looted securities, looted works of art, unclaimed and unpaid insurance policies, slave labor practices, and wartime trade between the neutrals and the Axis powers.

Law firms and other research teams involved in class action litigation relating to dormant accounts in Swiss banks and unpaid insurance policies of victims of Nazi persecution have found NARA's holdings critical to their research. Jewish organizations, banking organizations, and art restitution teams have also used NARA's holdings.

Foreign researchers have found NARA an important resource to supplement the information available in the archival records in their own countries. During the past year there have been dozens of private researchers from various countries, including Austria, Sweden, the Netherlands, France, Greta Britain, Germany, and Switzerland. During the summer of 1997, six researchers from Sweden made their home at Archives II for several weeks, looking at records relating to their country. In February 1998, researchers representing commissions from Spain, Portugal, and Argentina began their research. Representatives of foreign banks and foreign archivists, including those from Israel and Sweden have also sought information.

Congressional Interest

The Senate Banking Committee and the House Banking and Finance Services Committee have made use of NARA's holdings. Senator D'Amato, appreciative of NARA's efforts, said, "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."

The House committee was interested in records pertaining to heirless assets in America. Committee staff research contributed to the Holocaust Victims Redress Act being introduced in Congress during the fall of 1997 and passed and signed by President Clinton on February 13, 1998. The law authorizes $20 million for restitution and $5 million for archival research. In signing the law, the president noted that it "recognizes the need for long overdue archival research…to set the historical record straight."

NARA and the Inter Agency Group on Nazi Assets

Within days of issuing its first report, the Inter Agency Group on Nazi Assets was asked by political leaders to prepare another report. Thus, in the summer of 1997, researchers from the Department of State, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the National Security Agency, representing the Interagency Group on Nazi Assets, began to do their research again with NARA's assistance. Their efforts will result in the publication of a report, tentatively entitled U.S. and Allied Wartime Postwar Negotiations With Argentina, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, and Turkey on Looted Gold and German External Assets. This report, which is being authored by William Slany, is due to be issued sometime in the late spring on 1998.

Slany and the author, NARA's representative with the Inter Agency Group on Nazi Assets, traveled to Ascona, Switzerland, in October 1997 to attend a conference on "Nazi Gold" records and research. This conference, sponsored by the Bergier Commission, was attended by representatives from Argentina, Canada, Great Britain, France, Belgium, and the United States. At the conference, research methodology and archival resources were among the primary topics of discussion.

The Future

Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, speaking to the Swiss Parliament on November 15, 1997, said that "doing all we can to discover the truth about the Holocaust and events related to it, and to act the consequence of that truth, are among the vital tasks of this century." Throughout the world, many countries, organizations, groups, and individuals share this belief. Thus, interest in the "Nazi Gold" issue remains high. Commissions have been appointed in Sweden, Portugal, Argentina, France, Belgium, Norway, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and half a dozen other countries to address issues relating to victims of Nazi persecution, postwar restitution efforts, and dormant bank accounts.

In December 1997, hundreds of representatives from 41 nations met in London, England at a conference sponsored by the British Foreign Office to discuss looted gold and the disposition of the remaining gold held in Lisbon, Portugal, in February 1998 and in Monaco in March 1998. At the London meeting, Under Secretary of State Eizenstat announced that another international conference would be held in Washington D.C. That conference is scheduled to take place in November, under the auspices of the Department of State and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Undoubtedly, interest in "Nazi Gold" issues will continue for years, if not decades, and just as certainly archival research will accompany that interest. NARA will continue to be a critical resource for those doing "Nazi Gold" research, for contained in its holdings is what the Archivist terms "essential evidence." This evidence, with the assistance of NARA's skilled and dedicated staff, will be made available and use for a multitude of purposes. The end result of the various research efforts at NARA and elsewhere, one hopes, will contribute to countries, including the United States, being more capable of addressing their pasts and accepting their current responsibilities.

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 1998 edition of The Record. To be placed on the mailing list for this free newsletter, please contact Roger Bruns of the NARA Policy and Communications Staff at 202-357-5482, ext. 257 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.