WASHINGTON, Jan. 16 (JTA) — The U.S. government made some “extraordinary efforts” to return the property of Holocaust victims after World War II, but made mistakes that hurt restitution efforts, a presidential commission said Tuesday.
In a 250-page report, the Presidential Advisory Commission on Holocaust Assets in the United States noted that U.S. government officials did not distinguish between assets belonging to victims of Nazi persecution and those that did not, and that victims’ assets were returned to countries and organizations rather than to individuals.
As a result, some Holocaust victims or their heirs never received their assets.
“Whether it was the need to rebuild shattered European economies, restore democracy to Germany, wage the Cold War or pay Americans for damages suffered during the war, the interests of individual Holocaust victims suffered,” said Edgar Bronfman, the chair of the commission.
The commission did not have the power to hear individual claims, but it did make arrangements with various institutions — such as banks and museums — that may result in the return of some assets.
The commission, which reported its findings to President Clinton on Tuesday, recommended that a foundation continue the work of examining the fate of assets taken from victims of the Holocaust that came into the possession of the U.S. government.
Such an institution, funded by both federal and private money, would search for and identify assets and continue research, said Ken Klothen, the commission’s executive director.
Klothen acknowledged a number of errors that the U.S. government made, including inadvertently depositing victims’ assets into a U.S. war claims fund and entrusting German and Austrian officials — some of whom took part in the Nazi regime — to be in charge of restitution efforts.
Some claimants failed to recover their assets because the bureaucratic procedures were too complicated or because they could not meet the tight deadlines, the report said.
The report could answer charges by European nations that the United States should not be pressuring other countries to act on restitution efforts before addressing its own responsibilities.
Jewish organizations were pleased with the report.
“Our government had the guts to say what happened and how we behaved,” said Roman Kent, chairman of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors.
Kent, a commission member, said there was no way the U.S. armed forces could have comprehended the magnitude of the Nazi plunder when they first encountered the looted goods at the end of the war. As for handing assets back to countries instead of individuals, Kent said the United States was naive to think that European governments would do the right thing.
With this report the United States shows that it can confront its past history, said Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress.
“For survivors, moral restitution is important,” Steinberg said. “They want recognition of their losses and suffering.”
The commission researched three main areas: gold, art and cultural property, and other economic assets. It also reviewed research conducted by others on assets that have been in the possession of private organizations, individuals or government organizations.
A number of European countries have started historical commissions and Holocaust education projects.
The commission, established in 1998, included members of Congress, U.S. government officials, the chair of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council and eight private U.S. citizens.
The commission was able to reach agreements with the museum community to make provenance information on artwork available to the public.
The commission also reached agreements with New York banks, which agreed to review their records to identify Holocaust-era assets and report their findings, and with the Library of Congress, which will identify books and other publications looted by the Nazis and make them accessible to scholars and online.