Research, Restitution, and Rememberance:
The Federal Government and Holocaust-Era Assets 1996-2001.
April 20, 2001
B'nai Israel Synagogue
As we all should know by now the Holocaust was both the greatest murder and the greatest robbery in history. I need not recite to you the details of the murders and the robberies. What I would like to do tonight is talk briefly about the role your Federal Government has played the five years with respect to Holocaust-Era Assets and Memory.
It is difficult to put a starting date on the renewed worldwide interest in the assets stolen by the Nazis, but I date it March 1996, when a researcher showed up at the National Archives interested in Jewish deposits in Swiss banks. She had come to us because early in 1996 Edgar Bronfman, head of the World Jewish Congress, asked U.S. Senator Alfonse D'Amato, the head of the Senate Banking Committee, to investigate the supposedly large quantities of dormant Jewish bank accounts in Swiss banks. His organization believed that there were billions of dollars in accounts and that the Swiss banks were making it difficult, if not impossible, for survivors of the Holocaust and heirs of victims of Nazi persecution to retrieve. Very early in her research the researcher located records that contained detailed information about Jewish deposits in a Swiss bank. Within a month of her discovery D'Amato's Senate Banking Committee held hearings on Nazi looted assets and the Swiss bank accounts and shortly thereafter began a major, worldwide research effort into Holocaust-Era assets.
The research effort coupled with diplomatic, political, legal, moral, and economic pressures have forced countries, organizations, and companies to come to grips with their past and to meet their current responsibilities.
Much has been achieved. Settlements regarding bank accounts, slave labor, and other property matters, have been reached with the Swiss, Germans, Austrians, French, and others, in amounts well over $6 billion. Work is on going with the insurance issue, the restitution of looted art, and Jewish communal and religious property. And $50 million dollars' worth of gold that was probably composed of non-monetary gold, or victim gold, instead of being returned to the central banks of Europe, has instead been donated to a Nazi Persecutee Relief Fund. A key element in the process has been the US Federal Government.
President and Administration
President Clinton, who first became involved in the Holocaust-Era Assets issue during the summer of 1996, said in February 1998, during the signing of the Holocaust Victims Redress Act, that one of the aims of his Administration was to "bring whatever measure of justice might be possible to Holocaust survivors, their families, and the heirs of those who have perished." Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, also took an active interest in the subject. Speaking to the Swiss Parliament in late 1997, she said that "doing all we can to discover the truth about the Holocaust and events related to it, and to act the consequence of that truth, are among the vital tasks of this century."
The US Senate and House of Representatives have held some 14 hearings on Holocaust-Era Assets issues since April 1996. Congress has also taken action. In early 1998 Congress adopted the Holocaust Victims Redress Act that authorized $20 million for restitution payments. Subsequently Congress appropriated $5 million for the Nazi Persecutee Relief Fund and made another appropriation in 2000 to be added to the German compensation agreement.
Growing out of the desire to declassify still-classified Government records Congress in October 1998 enacted the Nazi War Crimes Records Disclosure Act of 1998. This law required Federal agencies to review and recommend for declassification records relating to Nazi war crimes, Nazi war criminals, Nazi persecution, and Nazi looted assets. By the end of March over 3 million pages have been declassified and it is expected another 7 million pages will be declassified under the Act.
Congress in July 1998 established the Presidential Advisory Commission on Holocaust-Era Assets in the United States and President Clinton appointed Edgar Bronfman to chair the group. Also serving as members of the Commission were then Under Secretary of State Stuart E. Eizenstat and eight members of Congress. This Commission, after two years of research, presented its report to Clinton and Congress just days before the Bush Administration took office.
During the late summer of 1996 Bronfman explained the Holocaust restitution issue to the President. Clinton agreed to help with the issue and to work with D'Amato. In September Clinton tasked Stuart Eizenstat, then Under Secretary of Commerce for International Trade, as well as Special Envoy of the Department of State on Property Restitution in Central and Eastern Europe, to prepare a report on gold and other assets stolen by Nazi Germany.
To accomplish this task Eizenstat established in October 1996 an 11-agency member Interagency Group on Nazi Assets. I joined the group as NARA's representative. The Interagency Group eventually produced two reports, one in May 1997 and the other in June 1998. The reports discussed the looting by the Nazis and were quite critical of the neutral nations for accepting looted assets. The second report also addressed the Vatican's role during and immediately after the war. This was something President Clinton specifically wanted to be included.
Eizenstat, the State Department, and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum during the past four years have played key roles in international activities dealing with Holocaust-Era Assets and efforts devoted to Holocaust Memory. Both agencies played important roles at the London Gold Conference in December 1997, where representatives of 41 nations met to discuss the gold issue and archival openness. In December 1998, the State Department and Holocaust Museum co-sponsored the Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets. Attending the conference were representatives from 43 countries and a dozen non-government organizations. Besides assets issues, Holocaust education was given a prominent place because everyone realizes that in the not too distant future the survivors will no longer be with us, and records and memory will be all the more important. Growing out of the conference, under the leadership of the Swedish Government, an International Task Force on Holocaust Education was established and the State Department and Holocaust Museum have had important roles to play with it, including at the first conference, held in Stockholm in January 2000, and their next meeting, next month in Amsterdam.
During the first week of October 2000 in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius representatives of 37 nations and 17 non-governmental organizations met to discuss looted cultural property. Although this conference was called for by the Council of Europe and hosted by the Lithuanians, both the State Department and Holocaust Museum contributed significantly to planning the conference and ensuring that it would be successful, which it was.
During summer 1999 the President promoted Eizenstat to be the Deputy Secretary of the Treasury. At the White House ceremony announcing the nomination, Clinton made it abundantly clear that Eizenstat would still remain the Administration's point man on Holocaust-Era Assets issues. He was subsequently given the additional title as the Special Representative of the President and the Secretary of State for Holocaust Issues. This was good news to all of us who had worked with him. With Eizenstat leaving the State Department, that agency during the summer created an Office of the Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues to address all issues relating to Holocaust-Era assets issues.
The Bush Administration has continued the existence of the Office of the Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues and President Bush has asked that Eizenstat, now in private law practice, to continue in his role as the Special Representative of the President and the Secretary of State for Holocaust Issues. It was good to see that President Bush this Wednesday speaking at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and this Thursday at the Capitol Rotunda taking part in the Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony.
The Role of the National Archives
Since March 1996 the National Archives and Records Administration's Archives II Building in College Park, Maryland has been visited and/or contacted by well over one thousand researchers interested in records relating to Holocaust-Era assets. Many of those researchers have spent weeks, months, and even years with us going through millions of documents. To assist them I produced a 1,100-page guide to the records; we sponsored a one-day meeting on Art provenance and claims research and held a Symposium on Holocaust-Era Assets Records and Research in December 1998. Over 400 people, including representatives of numerous foreign governments attended. During the course of the day NARA launched it assets website, joining with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and State Department in having Holocaust-Era Assets specific websites. We have also initiated a multi-year preservation and access program to microfilm Holocaust-Era related records.
Last September in New York City at a World Jewish Congress event to honor key people involved in the recovery of Holocaust-Era assets, President Clinton stated "Of course, we can never compensate the victims and their families for what was lost. It is beyond our power to restore life or even to rewrite history. But we have made progress towards setting history straight, and providing compensation for lost or stolen assets, and forced or slave labor. We have an especially sacred obligation to elderly survivors, particularly the double victims who endured first the Holocaust and then a half-century of communism. For their sake, there can be no denying the past or delaying the compensation. We must also meet our obligations to the future, to seek the truth and follow where it leads…" And he concluded by saying that "it is so important that the horror of the Holocaust never fade from our memories, and that we never lose sight of its searing lessons."
During the past five much has been accomplished towards bringing justice and compensation to victims of Nazi persecution, as well as for providing for Holocaust memory, research, and education. But those working so hard to achieve the financial settlements knew that no amount of money could ever compensate for the atrocities of World War II. And they also know that much still needs to be done, and done quickly as the number of Holocaust survivors decreases every year. Many issues, both old and new, are still unresolved. Thus, undoubtedly, interest in Holocaust-Era assets issues will continue for years, if not decades. And just as certainly the Federal Government will continue to serve an important role in the search for truth and justice.