Jews call for moral restitution at world confab on Nazi gold

LONDON — As politicians and Jewish leaders gathered here this week for an unprecedented international conference examining the trail of Nazi gold, the United States and Britain announced plans to compensate Holocaust survivors and their families.

But Edgar Bronfman, president of the World Jewish Restitution Organization, who called for billions of dollars in restitution, made it clear that compensation wasn't simply a matter of money.

"We are not here talking merely about gold or items of art or securities or other material assets," he told the conference.

"We are here in a resolute desire to make clear the truth — ensure that history is written correctly or else we shall lose it. This is about justice and the quest not only for material restitution but moral restitution as well."

As one Jewish leader observed, never before have so many nations come together "to consider how they might start on the road to justice for the Jewish people."

It is a search that dates back half a century.

But it was not until last year, amid startling revelations about Switzerland's wartime gold transactions and handling of Jewish assets, that the search came into focus and acquired a sense of urgency.

More embarrassing disclosures have since spread all along the trail of Nazi gold, showing that other neutral nations either bought, hid or traded Nazi loot as well.

With each new turn, Jewish leaders have intensified their demands for a full historical accounting, both financial and moral.

The three-day conference, which began Tuesday, included representatives of some 40 countries and six non-governmental agencies.

It was a testament to how far that accounting has come.

"We are here from every nation to examine our consciences and our archives in the international search for an honorable future, through opening up what was too often a deeply dishonorable past," Lord Greville Janner, one of Britain's most prominent Jewish leaders, said at the opening of the conference.

Janner, a former Labor Party lawmaker who is now chairman of Britain's Holocaust Educational Trust, is credited with convincing the Labor government to host the conference. He also personally persuaded several reluctant delegations to attend, including Russia, Lithuania, Belarus and the Vatican.

While the gathering constitutes an achievement in itself, Jewish officials say the success of the conference ultimately will be measured by its ability to further the process of attaining moral restitution for victims of the Holocaust — specifically, an acknowledgment of all the facts, the wrongdoing and the collective responsibility to find the truth.

In that sense, the conference is not being viewed as a culminating point but as an intermediary step — a "way station," as one official put it, on the road to complete justice.

The conference was convened under the auspices of the Tripartite Gold Commission, set up in 1946 by the United States, Britain and France to restore Nazi-looted gold to its rightful owners.

During the last 50 years, the commission distributed some 337 tons of looted gold — 98.6 percent of the amount in its pool — to 15 countries whose treasuries were plundered as the Nazis marched across Europe.

Another 5.6 tons, worth between $60 and $70 million, is still held by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and by the Bank of England. The commission froze its distribution last year after Jewish groups insisted that privately owned gold taken from Holocaust victims be returned to survivors or their heirs.

The new international fund announced at the conference is a move toward that end.

Stuart Eizenstat, U.S. undersecretary of state for economic affairs and the Clinton administration's point man on the Nazi gold issue, said the creation of the fund "extends both a moral gesture and a material contribution to justice, however little and late, for Holocaust survivors."

The United States announced it would deposit $4 million into the fund as a down payment on a $25 million contribution over three years. The donation must be approved by Congress. Legislation to that effect has already been proposed by Sen. Alfonse D'Amato (R-N.Y.) and Rep. James Leach (R-Iowa), who chair the Senate and House banking committees, respectively.

British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook said his country would contribute $1.7 million to an account it has opened in the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

Those countries who have claims to the remaining Tripartite gold have been asked on a voluntary basis to contribute their shares either to the international fund or to survivors in their own countries.

For decades the Tripartite commission has insisted that the gold it returned to Europe was composed entirely of monetary gold — ingots stolen by the Nazis from central banks.

The creation of the fund comes amid revelations that the United States, seven years after World War II ended, melted down personal effects belonging to Hitler's victims and turned them over to the Tripartite commission for distribution to European countries.

The Federal Reserve Bank of New York has planned to release long-secret documents at the conference showing that the now-defunct U.S. Assay Office, then part of the Treasury, created 40 gold bars out of gold plates, buttons, coins and pipe-smoking ornaments recovered after the war.

The World Jewish Congress, meanwhile, released a document this week showing that the Tripartite commission knowingly distributed between 50 to 60 tons of personal gold from Holocaust victims to European countries after the war.

"This shows that the remaining 5.6 tons only represent a tiny fraction of what was actually" taken from the victims, said Elan Steinberg, executive director of the WJC, which obtained the documents from the U.S. National Archives.

A Swiss study released this week, meanwhile, concluded that the Nazis stripped $146 million worth of gold from Holocaust victims, accounting for one-sixth of all the gold Germany acquired during the war. That $146 million is worth about $1.3 billion at today's prices.

Although the WJC disputes that figure, putting the amount of victim gold closer to one-third, the disclosure nevertheless was certain to buttress Jewish claims that more money is owed to Holocaust survivors as compensation.

And given Switzerland's fervent trade in Nazi gold — as much as 85 percent of Nazi-looted gold made its way through Switzerland — pressure is likely to intensify on the Alpine nation to make additional contributions, specifically into the new international fund.

Switzerland, for its part, swiftly ruled out the possibility of contributing to the fund.

"There is no need" because "we have our own fund," said Swiss Ambassador Thomas Borer, the country's leading troubleshooter on issues related to its wartime past, referring to the Holocaust Memorial Fund established earlier this year to aid needy survivors.

Nevertheless, Bronfman said this week that Switzerland needs to pay billions of dollars to Holocaust survivors in order to bring closure to the range of issues related to its wartime activities — a proposal that Switzerland rejected outright.

"We fail to understand these most recent commands of Mr. Bronfman," Borer said Tuesday at a press conference. "We think such extreme, all-inclusive financial demands obviously lack any objective basis and contradict our desire to satisfy all justified claims."

In Switzerland, the secretary-general of the Swiss Federation of Jewish Communities, Martin Rosenfeld, also rejected Bronfman's proposal.

Other Jewish officials, meanwhile, hailed the creation of the new fund as an "historic step forward."

"If we are astonished that half a century after the Holocaust there is an international conference of 42 countries dealing with the issue of Holocaust-era assets, how much more astonishing is it that…they would initiate a multilateral fund to deal with this wrenching question of the Second World War?" said the WJC's Steinberg.

Beyond the material aim of securing more money for needy Holocaust survivors, Jewish officials set their sights on new goals.

Most notably, officials were seeking a commitment from all those attending to release all relevant historical files, including the records of the Tripartite commission.

Along those lines, a proposal for full disclosure was expected to come from an unlikely corner.

Borer said he would make a formal proposal at the conclusion of the conference urging every nation to come clean with all relevant documents.

Disclosure and cooperation, he said, is necessary to avoid "a future that will not merely be a sad repetition of past mistakes."