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The primary mandate of the Presidential Advisory Commission on Holocaust Assets in the United States was to "conduct a thorough study and develop a historical record of the collection and disposition of the assets" taken from victims of the Holocaust by Nazi Germany or Nazi-allied governments, "if such assets came into the possession or control of the Federal Government" at any time after January 30, 1933. Plunder and Restitution: The United States and Holocaust Victims' Assets is the final report of the Commission, including its Findings and Recommendations to the President and the Staff Report to the Commission.
This report identifies several major themes:
* Government officials did not initially distinguish between assets belonging to victims of Nazi persecution and those that did not. In time, the terminology of government policy came to refer to "persecutees," or those who had lost property under duress. While "Holocaust victim" never existed as a legal category, during and after the war the U.S. government devised numerous regulatory and legal distinctions that affected the access of those defined as "enemies," "foreign nationals," "refugees," and the like to their assets. Some of these distinctions helped those we would today call Holocaust victims. The evolution of American thinking led to explicit legal and policy recognition in 1945 and 1946 that "persecutees" and "stateless persons" deserved special status as well as special measures to facilitate recovery of their assets.
* The onset of the war led to aggressive strategic efforts--what The New York Times called "a worldwide ring around Nazi attempts to conceal the movement of their assets"1--to prevent assets owned by foreign nationals and held in the United States from being used by the Nazis to fuel their war effort.
* Issues the Allies considered more pressing--in particular the imperative to do the maximum economically and politically to win the war, to rebuild the German and European economies after the war, and to wage the Cold War--continually overshadowed concern for restitution.
American policy operated in two arenas: the United States and Europe. In the United States:
* Before, during, and after the war the U.S. government endeavored to deny the enemy control over economic assets being brought into--or already within--its borders. Because the United States took control of so many assets it undoubtedly seized some that belonged to Holocaust victims, though not intentionally.
* U.S. officials were aware of the intensity of Nazi persecution, but it would take until the end of the war before American policy began to accord special status to victims and their assets, because it had seemed consistently more important to defeat the enemy than to aid the victims. In the immediate post-war period, other issues took priority.
* The desire to compensate U.S. citizens for damages suffered overseas competed with the restitution of victims' assets, because both programs drew sums from the pool of seized property. In 1946, however, Congress enacted legislation enabling persecutees to claim property that had been frozen in the United States during the war and, over the next decade, the Office of Alien Property (OAP) carefully examined individual claims to determine the legitimate ownership of assets. But, this resulted in an average delay of more than three years before a victim could recover property.
* As American troops overran large areas of German-occupied territory during the final phases of World War II, they discovered billions of dollars worth of gold, other financial assets and art--much of it looted--left behind by the defeated Nazi regime. U.S. armed forces did not set out to become the guardians of property looted by the Nazis, but circumstances thrust this role upon them.
* American leaders recognized their responsibility to safeguard private property, to prevent its use by the enemy, and to lay the foundation for the eventual return of loot to its rightful owners. Because field units had no systematic method of distinguishing victims' assets from war booty or legitimate German-owned property, the U.S. Army emphasized the collection and control of all asset types.
* Later, when the military occupation government was in full operation, officials made intermittent efforts to segregate obvious victim assets from the general pool of assets under the control of the U.S. military government. Although policies and procedures surrounding collection and protection of assets evolved in response to the circumstances encountered by troops in Europe, U.S. officials often did not follow through in providing the resources necessary to deal adequately with this issue. As a result, policy implementation in the field frequently fell short of fully realizing the U.S. aim to protect property in its care from theft, deterioration, and general destruction.
* Having secured control of innumerable pieces of real estate, cultural artifacts, and financial assets, the United States inaugurated its general restitution program in the summer of 1945. This policy relied on the return of looted assets to the government of the country from which the property had been stolen. By that time, some U.S. officials had begun to recognize victims of Nazi persecution as a distinct category of property claimants. They also recognized that many victims had no country to which assets could be restituted and that it was morally unacceptable to restitute such property to Germany. U.S. officials consulted with the Allies, Jewish organizations, and German officials before implementing plans in Europe to allocate reparations to survivors and restitute looted property.
* To further address the needs of Holocaust survivors, U.S. officials designated the Jewish Restitution Successor Organization (JRSO) to receive non-cultural assets whose original owners could not be identified and employ the proceeds of their sale for the rehabilitation of survivors worldwide. Jewish Cultural Reconstruction, Inc. (JCR) emerged in 1947 to recover cultural property.
Even the impulse to assure restitution of assets falling under U.S. control sometimes delayed restitution to claimants and the successor organizations and had certain unintended consequences:
* The UnitedStates insisted that any law providing for restitution in Germany contain a presumption of duress--that is, that persecutees who transferred property after 1935 did so unwillingly, and that current "owners" of such property could be sued to effect the return of property to its original owner. The United States thus forced the creation of a much broader restitution program than initially envisioned by German authorities after the war. This also meant, however, that the promulgation of the restitution law in Germany did not occur until November 1947, more than two years after hostilities ceased.
Not all U.S. authorities recognized persecutees as a special category:
* Much of the documentation created in the immediate postwar era pertaining to restitution does not distinguish between victims' and non-victims' assets. This also meant that, among recovered assets that had been taken from victims by the Nazis, no distinctions were made among assets that had belonged to Jewish, Roma, Sinti, disabled or homosexual victims. Consequently, property that was identifiable as to its country of origin was not further categorized to designate an owner who had been persecuted by the Nazi regime.
* During the period between 1944 and 1947, neither a uniform nor a fixed conception of restitution prevailed among U.S. authorities. The measures envisioned for effecting restitution also shifted over time: while State Department officials initially favored only a modest indemnity payment for dispossessed persecutees, U.S. Military Government authorities promulgated a law in 1947 that promised full restitution of property.
* Sensitivity to survivors, heirs, and the successor organizations attempting to claim property fluctuated in the postwar era as U.S. policies sometimes adversely affected the restitution program. For instance, the decision to return many governing tasks to the Germans in 1945 allowed some who had benefited from Aryanizations--the coerced transfer of Jewish property to non-Jews--to participate in the administration of the restitution program. It took more than a decade for the Congress to pass legislation providing a lump sum settlement of JRSO claims against the Office of Alien Property. In 1962, the JRSO reluctantly accepted $500,000 in that settlement.
Although other policy considerations impeded progress, agencies of the United States government demonstrated a significant commitment to return the property of Holocaust victims after the Second World War.
1 New York Times, June 15, 1941.
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