Menu JTA Search

NEWS ANALYSIS U.S. calls for closure as Nazi gold conference ends

LONDON, Dec. 8 (JTA) — A historic international conference aimed at providing a measure of justice to Holocaust survivors concluded last week with a bold call from the United States. Stuart Eizenstat, head of the American delegation, urged the nations of the world to act within the next two years to bring closure to all issues related to the fate of Jewish assets lost during the World War II-era. “We must not enter a new century without completing the unfinished business of this century,” said Eizenstat, undersecretary of state for economic affairs and the Clinton administration’s point man on the Nazi gold issue. “We have a collective responsibility to leave this century having spared no effort to establish the truth, and to do justice.” The proposal was intended to ignite a sense of urgency to compensate the more than 350,000 needy Holocaust survivors worldwide. “We are dealing with a biological problem,” said Eizenstat. “We must not allow this to degenerate into a biological solution,” he said, referring to the ever-dwindling number of survivors. The London conference culminated an 18-month period that has yielded startling revelations about the fate of Holocaust victims’ assets and the movements of Nazi gold through Switzerland and other neutral nations. Jewish leaders hailed the conference as a “moral triumph” that “exceeded all expectations,” although they were careful to stress that the gathering was not an end in itself, but part of an ongoing process to achieve restitution and justice. Along those lines, most of the 240 delegates from more than 40 countries emerged committed to providing full financial and moral accountings of their nations’ wartime actions. The conference, however, was not without its disappointments. Jewish officials criticized France for balking at calls for the release of relevant archival documents and for failing to announce a decision to join nine other countries contributing to a new international compensation fund for Holocaust survivors. The Vatican also came under fire for its silence in light of new information suggesting that it dealt in Nazi loot, and Switzerland was singled out by Jewish officials for what they said was its “business as usual” approach. But, ultimately, the London conference may have been more important for its symbolic value than for its concrete achievements. Indeed, many of the delegates said an enhanced historical understanding will be the true legacy of the conference. Armed with that understanding and a commitment to full accountability, they said they now hope to move toward timely closure. The delegates agreed to hold a follow-up conference next spring or summer at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., to focus on other assets stolen from Holocaust victims, including art works, bonds and insurance policies. Eizenstat, meanwhile, said that fact-finding commissions set up by more than a dozen nations should complete their inquiries by the year 2000, and he announced that a new Web site would be set up to facilitate communication and disclosure of historical information. The three-day conference yielded a mountain of documents detailing each country’s response to Nazi Germany’s systematic plundering of European banks and Holocaust victims’ assets. Few nations emerged unblemished. Held under the auspices of the Tripartite Gold Commission — set up by the United States, Britain and France after the war to distribute looted Nazi gold back to its rightful owners — the conference was geared in part to determining how 5.6 tons of residual gold, currently worth between $55 and $60 million, should be distributed. During the last 50 years the commission has distributed 337 tons of looted gold — 98.6 percent of the amount in its pool — to European countries whose treasuries were pillaged by the Nazis. Officials now concede that much of that gold was in fact Holocaust victims’ personal gold — between 50 and 60 tons, according to the World Jewish Congress. In one of the more tangible results of the conference, the United States and Britain announced the creation of a new international compensation fund in recognition of debts owed to Holocaust victims. Nine countries have so far committed more than $15 million to the fund. The United States pledged $4 million, rising to $25 million if Congress approves. And Britain said it would contribute $1.7 million. Luxembourg, Croatia, Greece, Poland and Austria — which all have claims to the Tripartite gold — said they were ready to transfer part or all of their claims to the new fund. Brazil and Argentina also said they plan to make donations. The voluntary contributions have increased pressure on France and other countries to follow suit. Jewish delegates praised the fund as a promising means of channeling the residual gold — and possibly additional contributions — to Holocaust survivors. The Tripartite commission, meanwhile, failed to decide to make public its archives — a move that Jewish officials, together with the United States and Israel, had been advocating. Britain supports the move, but France opposes it, saying it would be inappropriate for the commission to disclose its files before finishing its work, according to officials. At the close of the conference, Jewish officials reserved their criticism for Switzerland and the Vatican delegation, which attended as observers rather than participants. “I thought it very sad that one of the greater moral centers of the world did not tell us what their view was at all,” Lord Greville Janner, a prominent Jewish leader who chairs Britain’s Holocaust Educational Trust, said of the Vatican’s silence at the conference. The WJC said it had obtained new documents containing charges that the Vatican played a significant role in handling looted gold, and Jewish officials, together with the Israeli delegation, called on the Vatican to open its archives. The Vatican delegation responded by saying their records were sealed for 100 years, Jewish officials said. And while praising a frank Swiss report that said looted Nazi gold made its way to Switzerland, Elan Steinberg, executive director of the WJC, criticized the Swiss delegation for failing to acknowledge any additional obligation it might have, saying it was “business as usual” for Switzerland. He characterized the Swiss position as: “We got away with the gold 50 years ago and we’re going to keep it.” The United States took a starkly different view, praising the Swiss delegation for its “courage” and “candor.” Switzerland, for its part, called the conference a success. Special Ambassador Thomas Borer, the Bern government’s leading trouble- shooter on Holocaust issues, said Switzerland was happy to see the focus on his country’s wartime activities shift toward the dealings of other neutrals and occupied countries. “I would say Switzerland has emerged from this conference with its burden somewhat reduced,” Borer told reporters. “People see the broader spectrum.”