Menu JTA Search

FOCUS ON ISSUES Search for Holocaust-era assets yields breakthroughs around globe

WASHINGTON, March 24 (JTA) — The ongoing search for missing Holocaust-era assets has yielded key breakthroughs in recent months that could bring billions of dollars in additional compensation to Holocaust survivors around the globe. While the $1.25 billion settlement reached last year with Swiss banks stands as the signal achievement on the long, tortuous path to justice, significant progress has also been made on several other fronts: * A U.S. presidential commission has begun to probe the fate of Holocaust assets in the United States. * Jewish officials are close to finalizing a deal with German companies that could establish a multibillion- dollar fund for Holocaust victims. * A leading Austrian bank is working out an agreement to pay into a humanitarian fund and release important historical records. * French banks have put forth an initiative to return unclaimed accounts. The most recent development is the French initiative, which has the support of French Jews but so far has failed to satisfy international Jewish groups involved in Holocaust restitution issues. French banks announced Wednesday “comprehensive measures” to compensate Holocaust survivors for lost assets. The World Jewish Congress, however, has rejected the banks” proposal not only as grossly insufficient, but as a “betrayal of the memory of the victims of the Holocaust.” Elan Steinberg, executive director of the WJC, criticized the plan because it does not call for an independent audit, provides no guarantees that a list of bank accounts would be made public and would create a foundation for heirless assets over which the Jewish community and Holocaust survivors have no control. The plan calls for returning bank accounts seized from Holocaust victims to their rightful heirs and using heirless assets to create a memorial fund. In a statement, the banks acknowledged they “were among the cogs in the terrible machine of confiscation of Jewish assets in France,” and “therefore bear the duty of reparation towards the victims of these [anti-Jewish] laws.” The banks said $55.5 million in assets was confiscated and frozen by French banks, but that most was returned after the war. They did not specify how much they still held. The banks had been negotiating a secretive agreement with French Jewish leaders to settle Holocaust-era claims, but the deal foundered after the WJC and a French government panel probing Holocaust looting and restitution caught wind of it. The WJC blasted French Jewish leaders, accusing CRIF, the umbrella group of secular French Jewish organizations, of trying to provide an easy way out for the French banks and attempting to negotiate on behalf of non-French victims of the Holocaust. “This is a universal Jewish issue deriving from the fact that the majority of the victims of the Holocaust in France were non-French Jews,” Steinberg said. The French government”s Matteoli Commission, for its part, threatened to resign if the deal went through, complaining that its work would be made redundant. But the banks went ahead and announced their compensation plan anyway, albeit without the participation of the French Jewish community. CRIF on Wednesday saluted the French banks for acknowledging their wartime collaboration with the Vichy regime and its responsibility to provide compensation, saying, “Even if this declaration comes late, we must praise it.” French Jewish officials, who remain divided themselves over how to handle the issue, agree on at least one thing: They want the WJC kept out of negotiations with the banks. “The WJC is mistaken if it thinks the question of Holocaust compensation in France can be handled the same way it did with Switzerland,” Henri Hajdenberg, president of the CRIF, was quoted as saying recently, referring to the pressure tactics and public relations campaign that led to the settlement with Swiss banks last August. The WJC indicated it may well take a page from its Swiss playbook by recommending that a planned merger between French banks be held up until outstanding claims are resolved. That issue is likely to be addressed next month when a monitoring panel of U.S. public finance officers, whose threat last year of a boycott of Swiss banks helped persuade them to reach a settlement, meets to examine the French banks” handling of Holocaust claims. As it stands now, Steinberg said the WJC is prepared to tell the panel that the French banks are “non-cooperative, are seeking to circumvent the representatives of the Holocaust survivors and frankly, have demonstrated a callous attitude to the victims.” In Germany, meanwhile, the government is coordinating a fund established by banks and industrial companies to compensate slave laborers, those who were forced to sell property in Germany at bargain prices during the Nazi era and other Jews who lost assets during the Holocaust. More than a dozen companies have pledged some $2 billion, and Jewish representatives, led by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, are working with German officials to set parameters for the fund and a plan for distribution. Although the two sides have so far only agreed to a basic framework, Jewish officials said that if the process remains on track, payments to Holocaust survivors could begin by Sept. 1. One outstanding issue, though, is whether class-action lawsuits filed in the United States against the companies would be folded into the process, and whether attorneys would be able to collect fees. That latter issue continues to be a source of contention between Jewish groups and lawyers representing Holocaust survivors. The WJC flatly opposes the idea of lawyers collecting fees, saying that no one should be profiting from the Holocaust. Although many of the lawyers involved in the restitution battles initially offered their services pro bono, most said the strain on their law firms proved too much, and for that reason, are now seeking fees for their work. U.S. Holocaust survivors, for their part, last week passed a resolution protesting the fees and accusing the lawyers of tarnishing the memory of the Holocaust. Roman Kent, chairman of the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors, said the awarding of legal fees “is simply incomprehensible since it comes from the very assets stolen from us.” He added that “for lawyers to become multimillionaires by doing this, it is just not moral, not ethical.” The gathering is considering urging its 125,000 members to mail postcards expressing their concerns to all judges who are handling the Holocaust suits. In Austria, Jewish representatives are in the process of working out an agreement with Bank Austria to release Holocaust-era documents, establish a process for resolving claims against the bank and create a humanitarian fund that some sources said could amount to $40 million. Holocaust survivors have sued Bank Austria and its subsidiary Creditanstalt. They have also sued several German banks and industrial companies, accusing them all of profiting from the Holocaust and aiding the Nazi war effort by buying and selling Jewish assets at steep discounts. Unlike the “global settlement” reached last year with Swiss banks and the framework agreed to in Germany, the talks in Austria only involve Bank Austria and would not release other institutions or the Austrian government from additional claims, Jewish organizational officials said. The documents Jewish officials are seeking from the bank are expected to shed further light on economic crimes committed by other Austrian and German institutions. In Britain, the government this week started issuing claims forms to Holocaust survivors or their heirs whose assets were seized — and never returned — by the British Custodian of Enemy Property at the beginning of World War II. The government is also launching a worldwide publicity campaign to alert survivors and heirs to the possibility of reclaiming their assets, which had been deposited in Britain, ostensibly for safekeeping, just before the outbreak of the war. The government added 5,000 names to the 25,000 it listed on the Internet (www.enemyproperty.gov.uk) last year of people whose prewar assets in Britain were never recovered. In December, Britain announced it was establishing a $25 million fund to offer immediate, interim assistance to survivors who had previously been unable to reclaim their prewar assets. Meanwhile, Lord Janner of Braunstone, chairman of the Holocaust Educational Trust, which has spearheaded the campaign for restitution, has persuaded New York attorney Edward Fagan to delay legal action against British financial institutions. In his appeal to Fagan, Janner said his organization was negotiating directly with the British government and British financial institutions to resolve outstanding issues without going to court. And the United States, after years of criticizing European countries for their handling of Holocaust-era assets, has launched its own search into the fate of Holocaust assets that made their way to American shores. A 20-member presidential commission, chaired by WJC President Edgar Bronfman, has approved a research plan to search for gold, art, cultural property and other assets that were turned over to state governments following World War II. The commission, which convened for the first time last week, intends to seek cooperation from state agencies in locating what could be millions of dollars, Jewish officials said. The task will involve sifting through some 40 million documents in the U.S. National Archives, many of which have not yet been declassified. “Our mission is to achieve the truth — to find out how, and when, the gold, artwork, bank accounts and other assets of the Holocaust victims came into the possession or control of the United States government and to review what others have learned about assets that came into the possession of non-federal entities,”” Bronfman said last week. Meanwhile, some 60,000 needy Holocaust survivors in the United States have begun receiving about $500 each from a humanitarian fund set up by Switzerland, bringing the worldwide number of beneficiaries of the Swiss fund to 110,000. The nearly $200 million fund, set up by Swiss banks and other companies in 1997, is separate from the $1.25 billion settlement that leading Swiss banks reached last year to end Holocaust-era claims against them. A distribution plan for that settlement will not be finalized until later this year, and a federal judge will decide whether attorneys fees should be awarded to lawyers involved in the Swiss settlement. (JTA correspondent Douglas Davis in London contributed to this report.)

NEXT STORY