FRANKFURT, June 30 (JTA) — A German chemical firm has commissioned two independent investigations of its role in the Nazi looting of Jewish gold and silver during World War II. The announcement by Degussa signals a trend among German companies to respond more openly to growing public interest in the role of big business during the Holocaust. German companies such as Degussa and the Allianz insurance firm have recently stepped up their efforts to investigate their own roles in aiding the Nazi regime, presumably to avoid the negative publicity Swiss banks encountered for their reluctance in dealing with the issue. In an agreement with the World Jewish Congress, Degussa will examine its involvement in smelting precious metals stolen from Jews. The WJC will nominate historians for the project who worked on the recent U.S. government report on Nazi gold, said Michael Jansen, Degussa’s executive vice president. For the second probe, Degussa has asked a team of economic historians at the University of Cologne to investigate the company’s wartime activities. The announcement by Degussa came during a two-day conference this month in Frankfurt on the behavior of corporations and business leaders during the Nazi era. Gerald Feldman, the director of the center for German and European Studies at the University of California at Berkeley who was recently named by Allianz to investigate its ties to Hitler’s regime, attributes the growing interest in corporate behavior during the Nazi era to a new generation of German business leaders. Guido Knopp, an award-winning German documentary film producer, believes the Cold War prevented Germans from having to confront the Nazi past. “Since the end of the division of Europe and the division of Germany, our own history has become much more present,” he said. Jansen said Degussa only recently learned that some of the gold the SS gave the company during World War II came from Jews living in Eastern European ghettos. He acknowledged that some of the metal smelted at Degussa refineries might have come from gold fillings and jewelry taken from victims at concentration camps. Peter Hayes, a professor of history at Northwestern University in Chicago, said the motive for the wide-scale theft of Jewish property was to turn gold into convertible money to buy war material. He believes the SS turned to Degussa to carry out this work because it was the largest refinery for precious metals in Nazi Germany. Documents proving that Degussa smelted gold from concentration camp victims have not been found, Hayes said. But in the 1950s, he said, publications in Poland reprinted German wartime orders to Jews living in the Lodz Ghetto to take their property to the local offices of Degussa or to government-owned pawn shops that later gave the property to Degussa. Although historians have long known about the company’s activities during the war, Hayes said no one has yet researched how much metal was involved, how much profit Degussa earned and how important that money was to the firm’s development. Degussa’s archive is open to historians, Jansen said. However, he pointed out that many of the records were destroyed in bombing raids during World War II. To reconstruct the gaps in the company’s history, historians must work at archives in locations such as London, Washington, Warsaw, Moscow and Berlin, Jansen said. No date for completing the two investigations was given. Jansen left open the possibility of compensation for stolen property, but he noted that much of the gold and silver was partially smelted when it reached Degussa, making it almost impossible to identify individual owners. “They are bound to be worried about the legal and financial liabilities they will incur by admitting the truth, or by even finding out just how extensive the truth is,” said Hayes, who has worked at the Degussa archives. “Still, they have to come clean, I think. You might as well tell as much of the story as you know. That’s the best way to disassociate yourself from the past, to say that we are as shocked about it as you are.” Hayes believes that because of the difficulties identifying individual property owners, the company might eventually set up a general fund for Holocaust survivors, similar to the fund established by Switzerland’s three largest banks. In the past, Degussa has refused to compensate slave laborers it used in its factories during World War II. Like most German companies, Degussa claims the German government’s compensation payments after the war to Israel covers compensation for personal property and forced labor. Since unification, Bonn has also given the governments of several former East Bloc countries funds for Nazi victims. Most Jewish and non-Jewish Nazi victims in Eastern Europe have never received compensation payments.
German chemical firm to probe role in World War II gold looting