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France’s Report on Looted Assets Leaves Some Questions Unanswered

April 19, 2000
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A just-released report from a government-appointed panel goes further than ever in describing the looting of Jewish assets under the wartime Vichy regime, but some say France still has not come completely clean.

The New York-based World Jewish Congress is not satisfied that the Matteoli Commission provided all the answers from that period — particularly whether French state art museums have admitted to keeping paintings that were looted from Jewish hands.

The commission admitted that France had previously “underestimated” the extent to which Nazi Germany and its French collaborators had looted money and property from Jews living in France.

But while it stated that some $1.3 billion in assets had been seized from Jews, the panel maintained that more than 90 percent of those assets have since been returned to survivors or their heirs.

Jean Matteoli, a former French resistance fighter and non-Jewish concentration camp survivor who headed the commission, said it was “profoundly revolting” that as early as 1940 the Vichy government took “measures that went beyond what the Nazis demanded.”

“This is something we did not want to hide” in the report, he said.

The 3,000-page report, compiled by French historians and survivors, capped a three-year effort by France to acknowledge its role in Holocaust looting.

The report covered seized bank accounts and insurance policies, confiscated homes, artwork and furniture, as well as the last possessions stripped from Jews as they made their way through French transit centers to Nazi death camps.

Of the 330,000 Jews living in France in 1940, some 76,000 were deported to Nazi death camps. Only 2,500 returned.

As part of its findings, the commission recommended that the French government and French banks contribute some $350 million to a Holocaust memorial foundation as compensation for unreturned Jewish assets.

The commission also proposed that several artworks with no known heirs be donated to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem as testimony to the Nazi-era looting.

Prime Minister Lionel Jospin said he agreed with the report’s findings and promised to begin implementing its recommendations in the coming weeks.

For its part, the WJC cautiously welcomed the report, but said it would nonetheless continue its own separate investigation.

In the past, the WJC condemned the Matteoli panel for using “juvenile” statistics. It had also threatened legal action and boycotts against French businesses that failed to make adequate restitution.

Critics of the report are focusing on the extent to which France’s National Museums Authority has obstructed or hidden information about certain paintings.

The Matteoli report says that of the tens of thousands of artworks recaptured from the Nazis after the war — some 2,100 of which continue to hang in French museums — only 163 were seized from Jews.

“It is necessary to pose the question in a candid manner: Is it possible that the French museums have been enriched by the pillages of the Nazis?” said Elan Steinberg, the WJC’s executive director.

“If these paintings are stolen from individuals, that means they do not belong to the French state. For us, these are the last `prisoners of war.’ I believe the time is due for them to be released.”

Steinberg said his group will continue to prod the French government “to take a step further.”

“We want to see the French government accept the principle of restitution for these paintings, before anything else,” he said.

French media are also openly wondering whether the report sufficiently acknowledges France’s role in keeping Jewish assets.

The daily Le Monde said the questions posed by the WJC do indeed have merit, as the National Museum Authority has until recently “consistently silenced or denied” allegations that it possessed looted art.

The French Jewish community, meanwhile, welcomed the commission’s report.

Henri Hajdenberg, president of CRIF, the umbrella group of secular French Jewish organizations, called the commission’s research “exceptional.”

Just the same, Hajdenberg reportedly questioned the rate the commission used to convert the “old” francs of the 1940s into current francs. The panel used a factor of 1.7, but Hajdenberg was quoted as saying it should be 2.7.

If this factor were used, then the state and banks would have to contribute some $570 million to the proposed Holocaust memorial foundation, not $350 million.

Notably absent from the report were the names of banks and companies that were involved in the looting and will be asked to contribute to the Holocaust foundation.

Indeed, the amount the French government itself will pay, as well as the timetable to collect such payments, remains unclear.

Matteoli said such information will be kept private because “it is not the French method or habit to denounce” particular institutions.

The report found that Jewish assets were systematically plundered from 1940 to 1944 by both French officials and the Germans.

The looting was part of a political decision to weaken and isolate Jews in order to “exclude and asphyxiate them” just as the “Final Solution was being decided,” the report said.

The report details how under the Vichy regime more than 50,000 Jewish-owned businesses were “aryanized,” or transferred to non-Jewish owners.

Jews interned at French transit camps were stripped of all personal possessions. Many had to pay for the cost of their own deportation and purchase a ticket on the state-owned train system.

The Nazis emptied some 30,000 Jewish-owned apartments and carried spoils such as 2,000 paintings and 8,000 pianos to Germany.

Confiscating goods and abolishing Jews’ means of livelihood “were not only an affair of money but a persecution which had extermination as its goal,” according to the report.

“The most stunning aspect of our findings is the extent of the looting,” historian Annette Wieviorka told the Associated Press. “Every Jew in France was affected, from the poorest tailor to the richest art collector.”

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