Investigation of Jewish assets casts wider European net

BRUSSELS, Belgium — The investigation into the fate of Jewish assets seized by the Nazis spread this week, with Belgian, Czech and Swedish officials saying they would launch their own probes.

The Belgian government announced that a former governor of the country's national bank, Jean Godeaux, would chair a commission that will investigate the whereabouts of assets seized during the war from the country's Jews.

Prime Minister Jean-Luc Dehaene announced the decision to create the commission during a meeting with Belgian representatives from the World Jewish Restitution Organization.

The WJRO, which has spearheaded Jewish restitution efforts throughout Western and Eastern Europe, was created in 1992 by the World Jewish Congress, the Jewish Agency for Israel and other leading Jewish groups.

The WJRO's Belgian representatives have been seeking to learn the fate of bank accounts and real estate that belonged to Belgian Jews who died in the Holocaust.

It has also sought to track the extent of Jewish-owned diamonds stolen by the Nazis, who used them to buy foreign currencies and thereby finance their war effort.

At the onset of World War II, the National Bank of Belgium attempted to transfer its gold reserves to Africa via France. But France's wartime Vichy regime seized the gold and gave it to the Nazis.

In 1947, the Allies returned Belgium's gold reserves, but it remains unclear whether gold belonging to Belgian Jews was among the restituted reserves.

Elsewhere, Sweden agreed this week to cooperate with Jewish officials in a wide-ranging probe into the country's wartime dealings with the Nazis and its handling of Jewish-owned bank accounts.

The agreement was reached at a meeting between World Jewish Congress Secretary General Israel Singer and Swedish Prime Minister Goran Persson.

Swedish officials promised a comprehensive investigation, which they said would be completed within a year, according to Elan Steinberg, WJC executive director.

In the Czech Republic, meanwhile, President Vaclav Havel has taken "a personal interest" in the Slovak Jewish community's attempt to be compensated for gold that was taken during World War II.

Presidential spokesman Pavel Fischer revealed Havel's involvement after a meeting Friday of last week between the head of the Presidential Office, Ivan Madek, Czech and Slovak Jewish leaders.

Fischer said Havel believes moral considerations should take precedence in the dispute between the Czech National Bank, which claims it no longer has the gold in question, and the Association of Slovak Jewish Communities, which is seeking compensation of some $3.6 million from the bank.

In December, the bank turned down the association's initial request for compensation. The bank claimed at the time that it did not have the gold — which was transferred in 1953 to its predecessor, the State Bank of Czechoslovakia — and that the matter was up to the Slovak government to handle.

Bank officials say Slovakia obtained the gold when Czechoslovakia split into two states in 1993. But Slovak authorities say the gold was kept separate from other assets and was not included in the 1993 division of former federal assets.