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The Historical Context

There has been an increased focus on the Holocaust and its consequences in recent years. Many factors have contributed to this heightened awareness, including the intransigence of Swiss banks, the activities of European insurance companies, the recognition of the experiences of slave and forced laborers, the fall of communism and the commitment to democratic and open societies in formerly communist countries. There is also a general sense that the closing of the millennium demands that Western society seek to effect the maximum measure of justice possible for the victims of Nazi crimes. As a result, many governments, non-governmental organizations, businesses, and individuals began or renewed efforts to grapple with aspects of their records regarding the collection and restitution of the assets of Holocaust victims.

Research has helped to shed light on this history. The United States carried out pioneering studies on the role of the neutral countries in supporting the German war effort and on the fate of gold looted by the Nazis from central banks and individuals. 7 Policymakers from countries as diverse as Argentina, France, Lithuania, and Sweden realized the importance of revisiting painful episodes from their pasts if history was to be properly served. Numerous other countries in Europe and Latin America convened commissions to examine the records of their governments, banks, and other institutions. 8 In 1997, many of these countries gathered for the London Conference on Nazi Gold, and the following year the United States convened the Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets, the first major international gathering to address the fate of the entire spectrum of looted assets, including art and cultural property. 9 The Stockholm International Forum on the Holocaust, held in January 2000, and the Vilnius International Forum on Holocaust-Era Looted Cultural Assets, held in October 2000, were the latest major meetings of concerned nations to reflect the continued commitment of the world to focus attention on the Holocaust and increase efforts to recognize the scope of its crimes.

The United States has been and remains a leader in these international efforts. The work of the Presidential Advisory Commission continues this country's quest for the truth, and demonstrates that the United States has asked of itself no less than it has asked of the international community.

The Commission's goal is to describe, as completely and as clearly as the documentary evidence permits, the record of the United States government in dealing with victims' assets during the Holocaust and subsequent years. The Commission is not a restitution commission charged with locating and returning assets. Rather, Congress directed it to write the history of the collection and disposition of assets that came into the possession and control of the Federal government of the United States. In so doing, the Commission is mindful of the point emphasized more than 40 years ago by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany that "the compensation sought was for material losses suffered by Nazi victims and was not in reparation for moral wrongs inflicted. Those wrongs were irreparable in their totality...."10

While the Commission has focused its recommendations to the President on themes that directly address aspects of our government's record in handling the assets of Holocaust victims, it does not believe that the examination of the role of the United States during the Holocaust era should be limited to the topics addressed by the Commission. Fortunately, the work of research, remembrance and education--without limitation as to scope--is being conducted by other institutions both within and outside the Federal government. The work of the Congress, the National Archives and Records Administration, the Office of Holocaust Issues in the Department of State, the President's Special Envoy on Holocaust Issues, the Office of Special Investigations of the Department of Justice, the Interagency Working Group on the Declassification of Nazi Era Documents, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, and many private organizations, individual scholars and advocates all contribute to a broader understanding of the Holocaust and America's role during that period.

7 U.S. Department of State, Preliminary Study on U.S. and Allied Efforts To Recover and Restore Gold and Other Assets Stolen or Hidden by Germany During World War II, coordinated by Stuart E. Eizenstat and prepared by William Z. Slany (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office), May 1997; U.S. Department of State, U.S. and Allied Wartime and Postwar Relations and Negotiations with Argentina, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, and Turkey of Looted Gold and German External Assets and U.S. Concerns About the Fate of the Wartime Ustasha Treasury, coordinated by Stuart E. Eizenstat and prepared by William Z. Slany (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office), June 1998.

8 For a list of countries and commissions addressing the issue of assets of Holocaust victims, see Appendix D.

9 Nazi Gold: Transcript of the London Conference (London: The Stationery Office), 1997; Proceedings of the Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets (Washington, DC: U.S.
Government Printing Office), 1999.

10 Five Years Later. Activities of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, 1959.


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