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Chapter VII




Every generation writes its own history. When writing the history of the policies and procedures that governed the U.S. treatment of Holocaust victims' assets, however, the Commission staff benefited from the contributions of several generations of scholars. As a result of this undertaking, this project has identified several significant themes that emerge from this exceedingly complex story:

* First, government officials did not initially distinguish between assets belonging to victims of Nazi persecution and those that did not. The evolution of American thinking later 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.

* Second, the onset of the war led to aggressive strategic efforts to prevent assets owned by foreign nationals and held in the United States being used by the Nazis to fuel their war effort.

* Third, 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.

These themes, in turn, suggest that there are today certain appropriate responses by the United States that would recognize the work left undone by our government's policies in the years leading up to, during, and immediately after the Second World War.

In addition to identifying these themes, the Commission staff also decided in several instances that time and resource constraints could not justify further research on particular topics addressed in its report, even though such research was relevant to the Commission's mandate. Despite efforts that included the examination of hundreds of thousands of documents and interviewing some of the key participants in the events it was investigating, several factors limited the ability of the Commission staff to write the entire history of this topic.

In the United States, the National Archives holds more than 50 million documents related in one way or another to the Second World War and the Holocaust, more paper than any one team of researchers could read and analyze in the limited time frame available to the Commission. In addition, as a result of the efforts of the Inter-Agency Working Group on the Declassification of Nazi Era Documents (IWG), still more documents are being declassified and added to this total every day. While the Commission was able to see classified documents from the archives of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, there are many other potential document sources scattered throughout government agencies that only the patient work of the IWG can be expected to discover over the next several years. 1

Still another part of the story is to be found in foreign archives, some of which are more difficult to access and exploit than their U.S. counterparts. In many cases, researchers in other countries that have addressed the issue of Holocaust-era assets have used these archives; other archives are only now being opened to scholars of any nationality; and still others remain inaccessible. Again, the time and resources available to the Commission staff did not permit it to conduct extensive research in foreign archives or to consult thoroughly and systematically with researchers abroad.

The Commission's primary mandate called for comprehensive original research into the Federal government's handling of Holocaust victims' assets. A secondary mandate directed the Commission to review the research conducted by others into the handling of these assets by non-federal entities, including state governments and the private sector. In addition to areas of inquiry that could not be pursued for reasons of time and resources, a research effort of this scope inevitably identifies new avenues of inquiry that must be left for others to pursue because they are insufficiently central to the research plan being implemented.

In these categories, the staff has identified a number of areas that merit further research, the most important of which are:

Seizures of assets from Sinti and Roma, homosexual and disabled victims of the Holocaust

The staff made a number of efforts to investigate the fate of material assets belonging to non-Jewish victims of Nazism. Acts of genocide against the Sinti and Roma peoples, and the policies of persecution and murder of disabled and homosexual German citizens, have now been well documented. Unfortunately, virtually no work has been done on the fate of the property of these victims.

The Roma and Sinti populations were generally poor and itinerant. As a result, their material possessions are virtually impossible to quantify. Nevertheless, it is impossible to imagine that these groups did not lose articles of immense cultural significance, and further investigation into these cultural and material losses is certainly warranted.

In the case of disabled and homosexual victims, the persecution was less systematic and its documentation less complete. It may be that tracing the confiscated assets of these victims can only be done on an individual basis, but more work into the history of these aspects of Nazi persecution is certainly needed.

The impact of the Cold War and the creation of the State of Israel on the formulation and implementation of American restitution policy

These two significant and complex historical events interacted with the United States' policy in ways that impinged on the handling of victims' assets. The influence of the Cold War may be seen, for instance, in the restitution of certain assets to the non-communist Hungarian government and in the transfer of other Hungarian assets to Austria after the communist takeover of Hungary. Other instances of such interaction between Cold War considerations and the restitution of assets emerge in the incidents involving 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 effect on decisions regarding the disposition of unidentifiable victims' assets, is less clear. It seems likely that the struggles in Palestine between 1945 and 1948 helped to shape the attitudes and positions of the Jewish community in the United States and affected its ongoing dialogue with the United States government about restitution issues. The birth of the State of Israel also affected the distribution decisions of the Jewish Cultural Reconstruction, Inc., which allocated 40 percent of various assets to the new state.

Third country avenues for the importation of looted assets into the United States

Several hints emerge from the records of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and other files about the possible role of Latin American countries in the traffic of looted art from Europe to the United States during and after the war. Such avenues could readily have escaped the scrutiny of the U.S. Customs Service if the provenance of the art were obfuscated or if it was imported through ports of entry where officials were ill-equipped to value it. The Argentine Commission of Enquiry into the Activities of Nazism in Argentina (CEANA) has done important work in this area, but the topic would benefit from a multi-national approach. Other evidence suggests that Switzerland became a postwar haven for looted art that eventually found its way into American collections.

The quantification of Holocaust victims' assets

Because of the paucity and uneven quality of documentation at its disposal, the Commission staff was able to provide only a very rough estimate of the value of the victims' assets that came into the possession or control of the U.S. government. Because the United States did not distinguish victims' from other assets, and because the raw data that might have permitted the creation of a reasonable estimate have been destroyed, it is exceedingly difficult to quantify the value of those assets.

For example, with regard to Foreign Funds Control and the share of victims' assets caught up in the processes of freezing and defrosting, the 1941 census of foreign-held assets asked financial institutions throughout the United States to return to the Treasury detailed descriptions of the assets on deposit. Those forms have been destroyed, and the staff's investigations have uncovered no duplicates. As a result, it is not possible to estimate the amount of victims' assets in the United States in 1941. It might be possible to fill in some of the gaps by examining the defrosting data in the archives of countries to which defrosted assets were returned.

The relationship between Jewish organizations and U.S. Government agencies

It is clear from the research conducted by the Commission staff that the full story of the work done by the Jewish successor organizations and their relationship to the various agencies of the U.S. government is yet to be written. One example of a significant gap in our knowledge is the case of the "Becher ransom," in which it appears that identifiable assets belonging to survivors of the Holocaust were turned over to the Jewish Agency for Palestine, which later shared the proceeds with the Jewish Restitution Successor Organization. Although the Commission staff conducted research on this and other topics at a few of the most important Jewish archives, without more systematic and extensive research it is reluctant to reach conclusions in this complex area.

The presence of victim gold circulating in the international market

It is possible that gold bars and coins purchased by the Department of Treasury through the Federal Reserve Bank of New York before, during and after the war contained trace amounts of recast gold items looted from victims of Nazism. The Department of Treasury purchased gold for the Exchange Stabilization Fund, resmelted it into U.S. Assay Office bars, and incorporated it into the monetary reserves of the United States. Because of a lack of documentation, the amount of victim gold the Nazis seized and monetized by intermixing it with other gold in the German gold reserves has never been established. It is certain, however, that some of this gold was later used to acquire hard currency and material from neutral countries that deposited gold on earmark at the Federal Reserve. The entire story of the circulation of gold on the international market and the efforts to maintain gold as the international basis of exchange has yet to be written and merits further attention.

The role of state governments in handling dormant assets

The Commission staff's research has demonstrated the likelihood that Holocaust victims' assets, originally deposited in U.S. banks by individuals and subsequently frozen by the Federal government, escheated to the states in which the banks were chartered. The Commission has made recommendations regarding appropriate ongoing efforts by the banking industry and state governments to identify such escheated assets. However, evidence encountered by the staff indicates that the role of state and local governments in handling dormant assets may have been more complex.2

Another element of this research involves the amount of victims' assets in the omnibus or bundled accounts--pooled accounts held in the names of banks in which the names of the individual depositors were not known--maintained by Swiss, Dutch, French, German and other European banks in the United States that may also have escheated to the states. About 40 percent of the approximately 300 omnibus accounts listed in the OAP Annual Reports for 1951 and 1952 were not returned, presumably because there were no claimants or because the claims were disallowed. Without access to the actual bank records, however, it is impossible to determine how much of the remaining unclaimed property may have belonged to victims.

There is also evidence of the involvement of both the county government and the state tax commission in the post-war inventorying of a previously frozen safe deposit box in New York. It appears that under the law in effect at the time other agencies of state government may have had jurisdiction over corporations' treatment of their shareholder rolls, including purging from those rolls the names of shareholders who did not cash dividend checks or respond to other notices and whose whereabouts were unknown. The role of these entities is only poorly understood, and additional research into this topic is warranted.

Comprehensive integration of findings from other national commissions

The single most important research task remains to be undertaken--and one that the Commission firmly believes must be completed--is the integration of this Commission's research findings with those of all the other historical Commissions that have been at work on related issues. It would indeed be a loss if the work of these commissions was not synthesized to tell the most comprehensive and detailed history of the Holocaust that has ever been assembled. 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.

The existence of these important areas of exploration demonstrates that continued support of research into the area of Holocaust assets is appropriate. This is another area that the staff has drawn the attention of the Commission for its consideration in making recommendations to the President.

The Commission staff is acutely aware that history is no more than a window onto the past. It can never entirely re-create the human experience of the past. If the work and the suggestions for additional work presented here lead to a better understanding of what the victims of the Holocaust experienced and--in the strictly material sense--what they lost and only partially regained, then the Commission's historical work will have fulfilled its purpose, and the "higher ground" mentioned by President Clinton and cited by the Commission in its Findings and Recommendations will be realized.


Endnotes for Chapter 7

1 The records of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) offer insights into the activities of the Office of Alien Property (OAP). Starting in 1947, the OAP called on FBI agents for assistance. The Bureau "conducted investigations of various types involving the ownership and control of unvested and vested property subject to claims and litigation, "at the request of OAP. Savings and recoveries from these investigations amounted to several million dollars. The FBI did general investigative work, in the United States and abroad, on many different types of cases including, of course, investigative work to counter espionage and sabotage. It examined the veracity of claims of Nazi persecution including whether claimants were Jewish and checked the validity of passports and visas. The FBI also focused on the provenance of looted securities, paintings, and diamonds and tracked the movement of German funds in to the United States and that of Swiss funds from the United States.

2 See Rpt. of James A. Matthews, FBI Office, New York, "Alien Property Custodian Matter--Estate of Sophie Schiele, Deceased," May 11, 1956, FBI Files [124736-743].

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