FRANKFURT, June 8 (JTA) — What did they know and when did they know it? That’s the question confronting two of Germany’s largest banks, which were named in an $18 billion class-action suit filed in New York last week by three Holocaust survivors. Two of the claimants, Harold Watman, 77, and Michael Schonberger, 69, are charging that the banks dealt in stolen goods — including gold and other valuables — that the Nazi SS had looted from their families at Auschwitz. Both Deutsche Bank and Dresdner Bank, the targets of the suit, say they did not know the origin of gold bars they purchased from the Nazis during World War II. Another claimant, 85-year-old Ruth Abraham, says Dresdner Bank confiscated her father’s bank account and never returned the money. The suit was filed one day after the U.S. State Department published the second of two reports about the extent and importance of trade in gold and war materiel that Nazi Germany engaged in with six neutral nations during the war. The report charged that the two banks sold gold to Turkey that had been looted from concentration camp victims in order to supply Germany with the hard currency needed to purchase war supplies. Deutsche Bank counters that a group of historians it has commissioned to investigate the bank’s activities during the war has come to the preliminary conclusion that the financial institution was unaware of the origin of the gold it bought from the Nazis. The historians, who are trying to trace the bank’s gold transactions, expect to finish their report in the fall, according to the bank. One German historian, however, attacked the bank’s stance. Christopher Kopper, who has done extensive research on German banking activities during the war, said in this week’s issue of the news magazine Der Spiegel that the bank’s managers must have known the gold was stolen property because the Reichsbank had used up its own gold reserves to finance the war. Nazi Germany looted gold both from the central banks it overran and from death camp victims. The so-called Melmer Account — named for the SS officer in charge of the gold that was stripped from concentration camp victims and resmelted at the German metal refinery Degussa — is worth more than $40 million in today’s dollars, according to the State Department report issued last week — double the amount of earlier estimates. Two months ago, Deutsche Bank admitted that gold reserves it sold in 1995 possibly came from Holocaust victims, and subsequently donated the more than $3 million in proceeds to Jewish institutions that support Holocaust victims. Some German lawyers have expressed skepticism that the class-action suit against the banks will be successful because of the difficulty in tracing the origins of the gold bars purchased by the banks during the war. However, the suit could focus attention on bank cooperation in the so-called Aryanization process, when the Nazi regime forced Jewish property owners and businesses to sell their belongings at bargain prices. Both Deutsche Bank and Dresdner Bank earned money on these transactions by facilitating and financing the sales and, in some instances, by buying the property outright. Although some Jewish property owners were able to reclaim their property after the war, others were prevented from doing so. Many prewar Jewish-owned businesses, including some major department stores and hotels, were never returned to the rightful heirs. The role played by German banking and industry during the Nazi regime has begun receiving more academic and public attention during the past few years. Deutsche Bank only began to acknowledge the bank’s role during the Third Reich in 1995, during the company’s 125th anniversary. Both it and Dresdner Bank, as well as the Degussa refinery, set up historian commissions last year after Swiss banks came under widespread international criticism for their role in purchasing gold looted by the Nazis.
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