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French Premier Vows to Step Up Restitution of Nazi-looted Property

December 1, 1998
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France will create a new body to examine restitution claims by the heirs of Jews whose property was looted during the Nazi occupation of the country.

“We know that no reparation will ever be sufficient because what was committed is irreparable. At the same time, it is fair that those whose property was seized — or their descendants — obtain some kind of reparation,” Prime Minister Lionel Jospin told Jewish leaders over the weekend at the annual dinner of CRIF, the umbrella group of secular French Jewish organizations.

More than half a century after the end of the war, France is still grappling with charges that it is reluctant to come to grips with the collaborationist past of its wartime Vichy government.

Jospin denied a suggestion by Jewish leaders that banks, insurance companies and other state agencies were dragging their feet in turning over their archives to a government-appointed panel, known as the Matteoli Commission, which is investigating the systematic plundering of Jewish assets during the war.

“The deliberate discreet nature of its work should not mask the extent and quality of the results it has already achieved thanks to the active cooperation of the state agencies concerned,” Jospin said.

Yet he promised that his left-wing government would allot some $1.75 million to hire more staff for the Matteoli Commission and said he had already asked various ministries in possession of wartime files to devote more personnel to search for records of the confiscations.

Jospin added that the commission would set up the new office to hear individual claims and, once it had completed its probe, would suggest a means of compensation.

The prime minister also reassured Jewish leaders that the commission’s final report on its inquiry would be completed by the end of 1999.

During the dinner, Henri Hajdenberg, CRIF’s president, accused state agencies and financial institutions of balking at the probe.

“Because of a shortage of staff and a lack of goodwill in certain ministries and official bodies, we fear the final official report will not be ready before the year 2000,” Hajdenberg said.

Hajdenberg also asked that more than 2 tons of gold plundered by the Nazis and returned to France after the war be allocated to needy concentration camp survivors, the construction of a Holocaust memorial and the creation of a nationwide school curriculum on the Holocaust.

It would “not be moral” for the looted gold “to be used merely to help fill the state’s coffers,” Hajdenberg said.

Jospin did not reply directly, but he said France had recently pledged about $3.5 million to an international fund to help Holocaust survivors.

Hajdenberg, who in the past has taken a relatively low profile on the restitution issue, gave a hard-hitting speech at the dinner, making it clear that the Jewish community had to be reckoned with.

He was especially harsh on the insurance companies, accusing them of making no effort to seek out survivors or their heirs while profiting from their money.

“It would be entirely intolerable for the misappropriated savings of the victims to continue to enrich financial institutions, whether private or state- controlled,” he said.

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