Small World

Jewish World Review Jan. 25, 2001 / 2 Shevat, 5761

Government report: Holocaust victims were forced to pay compensation for Nazi crimes

By Richard Z. Chesnoff -- IT'S TAKEN more than 50 years to set the record straight, but during the last days of his administration President Bill Clinton shed new light on a shameful chapter in history. A two-year study by the Presidential Commission on Holocaust Assets in the United States was made public last week. The study concluded that despite admirable efforts on some fronts, the U.S. — like many European nations — has never paid victims of the Nazis what they were owed.

"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 Holocaust victims suffered," commission chairman Edgar Bronfman reported to the President.

Many of the hapless victims were caught up in a general freeze on enemy alien property imposed during World War II by the Roosevelt administration. The ludicrous result was that Jews who had suffered the horrors of Nazi persecution had their assets impounded by the U.S. because they were still considered citizens of Axis countries. When the war ended, some of these assets — from securities to gold — may have been used by U.S. authorities to pay war-related claims by American citizens. In other words, Holocaust victims were forced to pay compensation for Nazi crimes.

The U.S. also failed to call neutral nations such as Switzerland to task for their ignominious economic collaboration with the Nazis. Worse yet, the U.S. allowed these so-called neutrals to keep most of the tons of stolen gold they had fenced for Hitler.

Then there was the question of plundered treasures recovered by U.S. troops as they swept to victory in 1945. Billions of dollars in stolen assets — from gold to artwork — were hidden by German troops in everything from castle basements to old salt mines. Many of these treasures were returned to the countries where they were stolen on the understanding that those governments would track down the people from whom they were taken. The report concludes, "restitution efforts of recipient countries were not monitored." In some countries, the U.S. actually hired former Nazi functionaries to handle postwar restitution claims!

How much the United States might still owe Holocaust victims and their heirs was left open for further study. The commission recommended that a foundation be set up to do that. The New York Bankers Association has agreed to a system to try to identify Holocaust assets. The commission also has persuaded American museums to make it easier for Holocaust families to find paintings and other artworks that may have ended up in museum collections.

But there are many unanswered questions. As I point out in Pack of Thieves: How Hitler & Europe Plundered the Jews and Committed the Greatest Theft in History, my recently updated book on stolen Holocaust assets, we still don't know the fate of millions "liberated" at the war's end by U.S. troops. In one case I am still investigating, some $20 million in gold, jewels, coins and paper currency that was raised to ransom a trainload of Hungarian Jews was last seen when it was confiscated in Austria by U.S. intelligence officers.

Three things are needed: Answers to the questions left open by the commission. A determination by the Bush administration to continue the commission's tracking role. A rapid system for distributing compensation to the aging victims of the Holocaust who are still among us. For these long-suffering people — most of them in their 80s — time is running out.

JWR contributor and veteran journalist Richard Z. Chesnoff is a senior correspondent at US News And World Report and a columnist at the NY Daily News. His latest book is Pack of Thieves: How Hitler & Europe Plundered the Jews and Committed the Greatest Theft in History.


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