Buoyed by Swiss bank inquiry, Belgian Jews seek diamonds

All that glitters is not looted gold. It could be diamonds.

The Jewish community of Antwerp, emboldened by the renewed interest in Swiss banks and Nazi loot, is trying to recover its plundered diamonds — which could be more valuable than the dormant Swiss accounts, says an official of the Centrale, representing the Jews of the Flemish region.

The bid for the diamonds is part of the unfolding picture of how Jewish communities in Western Europe failed to recoup their property after World War II.

Recent revelations have focused on France, where the Paris Municipality apparently owns flats that had been confiscated from Jews.

The diamonds may be the most valuable of all looted properties, although the Centrale could not estimate the losses. Diamonds are largely a cash business without adequate records.

However, the stolen gems must have been worth tens of millions during the war era, said the official.

"With one handful of diamonds, you can live for a lifetime," he said.

Gems were taken during raids on the Belgian diamond exchange, where the overwhelming majority of the dealers were Jews.

"People had to drop them on the ground, and the Germans took everything," the Centrale official said last week.

Even though there is no estimate of the value of the loss, there is evidence of the theft. When some dealers were arrested by the Nazis, they were forced to pay what was called a "guarantee" in diamonds.

At liberation, some surviving dealers received empty envelopes that apparently had been used when the gems were collected.

The Centrale has some of these original envelopes, which show a stamp of the Third Reich, the name of the raiding unit, the name of the dealer and the number of carats taken.

"We have no indication if some of the goods were [recovered] after the war by American or Belgian authorities or hidden, for example, in Switzerland," the Centrale official said.

The Swiss angle surfaced last fall, with the release of one of the "Safehaven" files — part of the trove of intelligence documents that have been used in the Swiss banks inquiry.

That document, a 1948 memorandum from the Belgian Mission in Germany to U.S. military authorities, said that the Nazis in 1940 took millions of dollars in diamonds and control of 1,200 diamond workshops in Antwerp.

The looted diamonds were moved to neutral countries, mainly Switzerland and Spain,it said.

It listed the names of some of the Germans involved in the diamond transactions, one of whom was still in Switzerland in 1948. The Belgian government then asked the United States for help in recovering the stones.