Menu JTA Search

NEWS ANALYSIS Holocaust survivors could benefit in wake of U.S. report on Nazi gold

WASHINGTON, May 7 (JTA) — Holocaust survivors stand poised to benefit from a major financial windfall as a result of a scathing U.S. study on the fate of Nazi gold. Armed with more than 200 pages that leave no Allied, Axis or neutral power unblemished, the United States, in releasing the report this week, said it would seek to give tens of millions of dollars in World War II-era German gold to survivors. The gold, stored in the Bank of England and the Federal Reserve Bank in New York, is the remnants of Nazi wartime plunder recovered by the Allies. Holocaust victims could see millions more if the United States reopens negotiations with Switzerland and other nations over decades-old agreements that misrepresented the amount of money the Nazis looted and sold to neutral nations to finance their war effort. The development means that 50 years after Hitler”s attempt to eliminate the Jewish people, Holocaust survivors could obtain additional reparations as a result of new inquiries into a chapter of history that had not so long ago been thought closed. Earlier this year, the Swiss government, bowing to international pressures, established two funds to provide needy Holocaust survivors with millions of dollars. This week”s release of the U.S. study, “U.S. and Allied Efforts to Recover and Restore Gold and Other Assets Stolen or Hidden by Germany During World War II,”” caps a 7-month interagency review, which was overseen by U.S. Undersecretary of State Stuart Eizenstat. The long-awaited, Eizenstat report is as unique for its research of more than 15 million documents as it is for its specificity, including an entry in the German central banks registry of 854 rings deposited from Holocaust victims. Among the key findings: * Neutral countries “ignored repeated Allied entreaties to end their dealings with Nazi Germany.”” Their trade “with the Third Reich had the clear effect of supporting and prolonging Nazi Germany”s capacity to wage war.”” * Switzerland prolonged the war and the murder of Jews by supporting Germany”s “capacity to wage war.”” * The U.S. secretaries of state and treasury lied to Congress after the war about the amount of Nazi gold in European banks. * The “inflexibility”” of the Swiss banks “made it extremely difficult for surviving family members of Nazi victims to successfully file claims to secure bank records.”” * There is no evidence that Switzerland or other countries, including the United States, knowingly accepted the gold of Holocaust victims. * Congress and U.S. state governments should consider subpoenaing private records to determine whether there are unclaimed assets of Holocaust victims in American banks. The Eizenstat report grew out of mounting questions and accusations involving a single country — Switzerland. Over the course of the past year, as wartime documents were declassified, Switzerland found itself besieged by international criticism over allegations about its wartime role.
It was charged with hoarding the wealth of Holocaust victims while helping to finance the Nazi war effort by purchasing vast sums of looted Nazi gold. But as researchers combed through thousands of documents in the archives of the United States and European countries, additional questions surfaced regarding other countries” purchases of Nazi gold. In addition, some of the documents raised the question of whether the Allies themselves, including the United States, had been aggressive enough in locating and distributing Nazi gold. In the wake of these questions, the State Department announced last October that it would launch an intensive review into how the Allies identified and distributed Nazi gold plundered during the war. The importance of the findings to Jews was underscored by the fact that Eizenstat briefed some two dozen Jewish organizational officials early Wednesday morning, a few hours before the report was made public. WJC officials, who worked closely with Eizenstat”s researchers, hailed the report as “an historical document.”” It is “testimony that the Jewish people were subject to not only the greatest mass murder in history, but were equally targeted by the greatest robbery of mankind,”” said Elan Steinberg, WJC executive director. How the money is distributed is certain to be the subject of much debate over the next few months. Survivors” groups want to see all the compensation turned over to needy survivors. Other Jewish groups and Eizenstat are seeking to set up an endowed fund and draw payments in part from the interest generated by the fund. At the briefing with Jewish organizational officials, Eizenstat, who serves as the U.S. special envoy for restitution issues and is slated for a senior post at the State Department, blamed the United States for “failing”” Holocaust victims “in the areas of restitution and compensation.”” “Ultimately, the United States, its Allies and the neutrals will not be judged so much by our actions or inactions 50 years ago,”” Eizenstat said, “but by what we do today.”” With this in mind, Eizenstat called for the immediate release of a “substantial portion”” of the $70 million in gold still to be distributed from the Tripartite Commission. But Eizenstat and the report stopped short of calling for a renegotiation of the post-World War II agreement that divided the Nazi regime”s plunder. The Tripartite Commission for the Restitution of Monetary Gold, established in September 1946 by the United States, Britain and France, was charged with the distribution of so-called monetary gold looted by the Nazis from the central banks of those European countries they had overrun. Recently declassified documents indicated that the Tripartite Commission”s distributions also may have included privately owned, or non-monetary, gold — some of which may have come from wedding bands and tooth fillings stripped from Jews on their way to the death camps. The Swiss government contributed some $58 million in gold to the gold pool administered by the Tripartite Commission under the terms of the so-called 1946 Washington Agreement. According to the report released this week by Eizenstat, the Swiss held far more looted Nazi gold than it turned over to the commission — an amount estimated at between $185 million and $289 million at the end of the war. An additional $120 million was also estimated to be held for other countries by the Swiss central bank. The Tripartite Commission distributed most of the gold in the pool during the 1940s and 1950s. The claimant countries receiving the distributions were: Albania, Austria, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Greece, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Poland and the former Yugoslavia. But in February, the United States, Britain and France agreed to halt distribution of the remaining $70 million while officials investigated whether some of it came from Holocaust victims. In his assessment of the report, Eizenstat saved his harshest criticism for Switzerland and other neutral countries. “The report makes painfully clear that neutral countries — Argentina, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and until the last three months of the war, Turkey — were slow to recognize and to acknowledge that this was not just another European war,”” he said. “Their cooperation was motivated in part by fear of invasion. It was also motivated in part by Nazi sympathies in some countries and by a desire for profit in all.”” Switzerland, which had braced for months for the release of the report, was quick to respond. Special Ambassador Thomas Borer, Switzerland”s leading troubleshooter for dealing with the accusations against his country, convened a news conference in Washington shortly after Eizenstat spoke about the long-awaited report. Striking a note of solidarity, Israel Singer, secretary general of the World Jewish Congress, appeared with Borer to discuss the spirit of cooperation his organization had established with the Swiss after months of often contentious relations. “This spirit will continue, and we will see that it does. We”ve committed ourselves to a new era of openness,”” said Singer. Borer maintained that the one major new piece of information in the Eizenstat report was the “evidence that the Swiss National Bank bought gold bars from the German Reichsbank during World War II which contained so-called `victim gold.” “If this is really true, it is grave news of the most shocking nature. The degree of cynicism and cold-bloodedness it would take for the Nazi brutes to resmelt their victims” gold and resell it as regular central bank gold is almost beyond our comprehension.”” In Bern, Swiss Foreign Minister Flavio Cotti echoed Borer”s comments about the Nazi gold looted from Holocaust victims. Both stated that the Eizenstat report “confirmed”” that the Swiss bankers were not aware they were purchasing “victim gold.”” But in fact, the report said only that there was no proof to this effect. In Basel, Switzerland, Interior Minister Ruth Dreifuss, the sole Jewish member of the Swiss Cabinet, discussed the implications of the Eizenstat report before a gathering of Jewish leaders at a local synagogue. “We have to search for the truth in our dealings with Nazi Germany,”” she said. “Did we deal with the Nazis because of the profit or because we had to survive? “The answer to this is the key question of the Jewish people.”” (Contributing to this report were JTA foreign editor Mitchell Danow in New York, and correspondents Fredy Rom in Zurich and Ruth Gruber in Washington)