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The Context of the Commission's Recommendations
A research effort of this scope inevitably identifies new avenues of inquiry that must be left for others to pursue. A number of areas that have been investigated preliminarily by the Commission's staff merit further research. These include:
* the disposition of the assets seized by the Nazis from the Roma and Sinti, disabled or homosexual victims of the Holocaust that came into the possession or control of United States authorities;
* the impact of the Cold War on American policy, including when and how Cold War considerations entered into specific restitution decisions, such as those relating to the return of assets from the Hungarian Gold Train, and the restitution of various libraries to the Baltic states;
* the effect of the creation of the State of Israel during the period in which restitution was being implemented, and its development's effect on decisions regarding the disposition of unidentifiable victims' assets;
* the possibility that looted art from Europe was trafficked through Latin America to the United States both during and after the war, thus escaping the scrutiny of the U.S. Customs Service;
* the possibility that Switzerland became, after the war, a haven for looted art that eventually found its way into American collections;
* the effects of currency reform and exchange controls on restitution; and
* the percentage of victim gold in Reichsbank gold bars.
In addition to identifying such corollary inquiries, the Commission staff also concluded in several instances that further research on particular topics addressed in its report could not be justified because of time and resource constraints. This was particularly the case where the archival records in the United States were incomplete and supplementary information was believed to be available in foreign archives, access to which is often more restricted than in the United States.
Perhaps the most significant example in the area of necessary compromise between research goals and the time and resources available to complete them came in the area of valuation of victims' assets that passed through U.S. hands. The question "How much was, and is, it worth?" appears simple, but is in fact extremely complex. Important but highly technical and difficult questions relating to the effects of currency reform and exchange controls affect the answer. Moreover, in many cases the U.S. documents are inadequate to specify the exact identity or quantity of assets handled (as in descriptions of stocks and securities by their height in inches), making valuation a guessing game at best.
In all of these areas, and others, further research may yield additional valuable information. The Commission believes that an evaluation of the likely returns on further investment in such research should be made, particularly in light of recent developments signaling the opening of access to important new archival sources, primarily in Russia and other countries of the former Soviet Union.
The single most important research task that remains to be undertaken--and one that the Commission firmly believes must be completed--is the integration of this Commission's research findings and those of all the other historical commissions that have been at work on related issues. Such an effort, complex and expensive though it may be, must be made in order to get the full benefit of the extraordinary scope of Holocaust research that has been completed around the world in recent years.
At its first meeting, the Commission determined that research by others into the way victims' assets were handled by the nonfederal sectors was only in its infancy, and that therefore the greatest contribution the Commission could make to this effort was to promote the adoption of standards and best practices that agencies of state and local governments, and private institutions and companies, should follow to pursue their own research into the three asset categories of gold, non-gold financial assets, and art and other cultural property. Because gold was almost exclusively the responsibility of the Federal government, the Commission focused on the role of banks and state governments in handling the accounts (and later escheated assets) of Holocaust victims, and the role of museums, art dealers, auction houses and collectors in transactions involving cultural property that may have been taken from those victims.
Matching records of escheated property with names of victims has demonstrated that additional research has the potential to identify specific assets and their original owners. This could not have been accomplished without the cooperation offered by the New York State Comptroller's Office in automating its unclaimed property records, and by the states and ACS Unclaimed Property Clearinghouse, Inc. The groundbreaking agreement with the New York Bankers Association establishes benchmarks for banks all over the country that will enable government officials, potential claimants, scholars, and other interested parties to judge the commitment of those institutions to identify Holocaust-era assets that may have belonged to victims. The resultant uniformity and transparency in research methodology will be an aid to scholarship as well as to the restitution process.
In the area of best practices, additional standards still need to be developed--for example, for the art trade and for business enterprises whose securities may have been owned by Holocaust victims. A means of monitoring and publicizing compliance with the standards that are developed must also be devised. Where databases are needed, they have to be maintained. Technical assistance resources must be made available.
If coordination of all of these tasks is to be accomplished, two conditions must be met. First, there must be a single institutional focus to coordinate this agenda to prevent the dissipation of responsibility and loss of priority that is the inevitable result of many discrete projects spread among several much larger entities with different missions. Second, the Federal government must continue to provide leadership to assure that these tasks are accomplished. This is not to say that all of these tasks can or should be undertaken by the Federal government--indeed many can only be accomplished by nonfederal entities. The Commission addressed the fundamental question of how the Federal government can best lead and support efforts to be made by a range of institutions, public and private. In fashioning its recommendations to the President, the Commission has made the answer to this question its highest priority.
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