Return of Van Gogh Latest in Series of Decisions on Holocaust Restitution

German officials have returned a van Gogh drawing to the heir of a Jewish collector forced by the Nazis to sell his art holdings at a fraction of their value.

The move, which came more than 60 years after the drawing was subjected to a forced sale, was one of several developments this week related to the return of property to Holocaust survivors or their heirs.

The van Gogh drawing and two other works of art were returned Wednesday to Gerta Silberberg, 85, of Great Britain.

She is the daughter-in-law — and only surviving heir — of Max Silberberg, who was forced by the Nazis to sell a collection of Impressionist and Expressionist works that have been valued at $60 million at today’s prices. He later died in a concentration camp.

The drawing, “Olive Trees,” has been in museums in Berlin and the surrounding area since 1935, when Silberberg was forced to auction off his collection.

Two more paintings from his collection have been identified in the United States and Russia, but terms for their handover have not been reached, according to the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, which had identified the van Gogh drawing.

In a second development here, Germany announced that Nazi-era slave laborers from former communist states would not receive payments lower than those from wealthier Western nations.

The announcement was made by Otto Graf Lambsdorff, who represents the German government in slave labor settlement negotiations that involve 16 German industrial firms, representatives of Holocaust survivors, and the governments of the United States and Eastern Europe.

If, as had been proposed, the payments were linked to the amounts of pensions in various countries, former slave laborers in Eastern Europe would have received considerably lower payments than their Western counterparts.

Lambsdorff said in a radio interview this week that he expects more companies to join the fund.

No official estimate has been given for the size of the fund, but unofficial numbers have gone as high as $2 billion.

Meanwhile in Portugal — which took in hundreds of tons of Nazi-looted gold during World War II — a government-appointed commission issued a report this week maintaining that the nation does not have to return any of the gold because it stopped accepting bullion from Germany after being warned that it might be stolen property. The investigating commission included Joshua Ruah, leader of the local Jewish community.

The report drew sharp criticism from the World Jewish Congress, which has spearheaded Holocaust-era restitution issues.

The report, which was 14 months in the making, does not refer directly to gold that was melted down after being stripped from Holocaust victims on their way to death camps. Instead, the report said the government received the gold from Germany via the Swiss central bank.

Its origin was not known to the government, therefore Portugal cannot “be accused of having knowingly received gold looted by the Nazis,” according to the commission.

World Jewish Congress executive director Elan Steinberg called the findings a “whitewash” of the wartime fascist regime of Antonio Salazar “and a betrayal of the Portuguese people.”

Other recent developments relating to Holocaust-era issues include:

Britain’s Barclays Bank this week agreed to make a $3.6 million settlement of claims dating back to the war. Funds will first go to survivors or their heirs who can prove that their Barclays bank accounts in France were seized after the Nazi occupation, according to a lawyer for the bank. The claims of families lacking such evidence will be reviewed next, and any remaining moneys from the settlement will go to nonprofit groups.

A U.S. federal judge this week appointed famed Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal to head one of three committees administering a $40 million settlement of lawsuits brought by Holocaust survivors against Bank Austria. Wiesenthal will head the restitution committee, which is charged with distributing funds after individual claims are paid;

A $180 million Swiss fund established in 1997 to help needy Holocaust survivors began making payments of some $400 apiece to survivors in Russia. Fund officials hope to reach a total of some 2,500 Jewish and non-Jewish survivors in Russia; and

British officials approved the claims of a first group of Holocaust survivors whose assets were seized by Britain during the war because they were citizens of an enemy country. People who believe they may eligible to file a claim for such property can find information about the claims process on the Internet, at www.enemyproperty.gov.uk ???

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