WJC report: Norway holding Jewish assets

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NEW YORK — Norway is holding millions of dollars in property and cash that was confiscated from Jewish individuals and businesses during World War II, according to a World Jewish Congress report.

The charges were met with assurances from the Norwegian government that it is investigating the extent of the confiscations and that it planned to compensate members of the local Jewish community.

The investigations are "very difficult" and time-consuming, Sverre Siverten, a spokesman for the Norwegian Justice Ministry, said in a telephone interview from Oslo.

The allegations against the Norwegian government mark the first time that the WJC has sought restitution from a Western European country that was overrun by the Nazis.

And more such cases can be expected in the future.

The WJC has "already begun the process of amassing documentation" regarding confiscations of Jewish property in wartime Holland, France and Belgium, according to a WJC official.

As a result of its investigations, the WJC "already has materials indicating that these claims will be substantial," said the official.

The charges against Norway are included in a report that is scheduled to be released at a WJC international plenary to be held Jan. 22-24 in Jerusalem. The report echoes charges made last year that Swiss banks were withholding millions of dollars in bank accounts opened by Jews prior to World War II.

Until now, the WJC has focused on seeking — and in some instances helped to obtain — restitution of confiscated cash and property belonging to Jews in Eastern European countries.

In wartime Norway, the confiscations were carried out by a group known as the Liquidation Committee for Confiscated Jewish Property.

The committee, which was overseen by High Court Judge Egil Reichborn-Kjennerud, apparently worked so systematically that after the war, Jewish estates were completely erased.

Until the late 1980s, the files of the committee were locked in a cellar in the "Distrikt Prison." The documents were subsequently transferred to the Public Records Office, where a graduate student at the University of Bergen, Bjarte Bruland, was the first to examine them.

Based on the files, Bruland concluded last year that Norwegian Nazi soldiers and others "got rich on the Jewish estates."

In July, when the Norwegian media began carrying the story about the confiscations, the Norwegian Parliament's Control and Constitution Committee began investigating the issue.

But since that time, "nothing has changed. The Norwegian government has done nothing," said the WJC official.

According to preliminary findings in the WJC report, "the property of 1,053 [Norwegian] Jewish families and at least 70 businesses belonging to these families were confiscated."

"Many Norwegians, not all of them Nazis, lined their pockets at the Jews' expense," the report added.

"Companies and businesses took advantage of the situation when Jewish property was confiscated and auctioned off or sold at rock-bottom prices."

When Norway was occupied by the Nazis during World War II, a puppet regime under Vidkun Quisling was established to govern the country.

In October 1942, the Quisling government passed an act calling for the confiscation of "all property of any kind belonging to a Jew."

The same day, all Jewish men older than 15 who had not already fled Norway were arrested. Roundups of Jewish women and children followed in a few weeks.

Norway had a Jewish population of 1,700 before the war, of whom about 1,000 escaped to Sweden.

The rest were deported to the Auschwitz death camp, where most of them were slaughtered.

Norway today has a Jewish population estimated between 600 and 1,000.

In its report, the WJC criticized the Norwegian reparation effort made after the war.

"The reparations office never released any report summarizing the results it achieved," the report said, noting that Jewish families who applied to the reparations office were given "mere crumbs of their former property."

The WJC report added the assessment: "We do know that enormous amounts were taken and that little was returned to survivors."