News Analysis: Britain seized Holocaust victims money, report says

Switzerland was not the only place European Jews put their money for safekeeping from the Nazis before and during World War II only to find they could not get it back afterwards.

The thievery of the Swiss was almost matched by that of the British, who "undoubtedly retained money of Holocaust victims in Germany, Hungary and Romania," according to a recent report by the London-based Holocaust Educational Trust. "It treated many victims of the Nazis and of communism harshly and insensitively at a time when they were most in need of help."

The British government failed "to make a clear distinction between Nazis and their victims," charged Lord Greville Janner, chairman of the Trust. He was a moving force behind last month's London conference examining the wartime theft of gold by the Nazis.

The British policy was not the result of anti-Semitism but insensitivity, intolerance, bureaucratic rigidity and a desire to compensate British companies at the expense of Holocaust victims, the report says .

Holocaust victims were classified as "ex-enemy Jews" and treated as enemy nationals; their assets were confiscated, not to be returned unless they could meet an enormous burden of proof.

The assets in England of Jews and other citizens of countries invaded by the Nazis were frozen during the war by the British and used after the war to pay off British firms with claims against Germany and its allies.

British banks, like their Swiss counterparts, also kept the dormant accounts of Holocaust victims, effectively turning them into interest-free loans for more than 50 years, according to Janner. He has called on the banks and British government to publish a list of all victim accounts and return the money, with interest, to their heirs. Where there are no heirs, he said, money should go into a fund for needy survivors and their families.

"The assumption seemed to be that the Jews were dead so it was OK to hold on to their money. Only [living] refugees needed help, it was felt," said Stephen Ward, co-author of the report.

At the 1945 Yalta and Potsdam conferences, the Allies decided that German assets should be used to pay for the war, and that apparently included the assets of German Jews. With this thin legal justification, Britain confiscated frozen German-Jewish assets.

Britain unilaterally and arbitrarily treated Hungary, Belgium and Romania the same as Germany. In 1953 it passed a law effectively removing the right of creditors and depositors to challenge such actions, the report noted.

The "main target" for this policy was Romania, according to the report, because the government wanted to pay off British creditors, particularly Shell Oil Co., whose assets had been nationalized by the new Communist regime in Bucharest.

On the other hand, Austria, Hitler's homeland and willing partner, was treated by Britain as an ally and liberated country so it not only paid no reparations but "active Nazis were as entitled as their victims to reclaim assets in England."

Postwar claims against frozen assets invariably favored British trade creditors who, the report notes, "were a vocal and powerful lobby group" while "Nazi victims were not."

It became government policy that the property in England of Jews who died heirless in enemy countries, including in the concentration camps, would be used "to satisfy…the claims of British creditors on those countries."

In other words, Hitler's victims were penalized twice — first when they were killed by the Nazis and then by the British government, which confiscated their assets in Britain.

Rules for settling claims by Jews were so strict that not even all concentration camp victims were eligible unless conditions there were "extremely harsh" and they were confined "in an actual death camp," the report revealed. Jews in countries allied with Germany were, in effect, treated as "enemies" and had their assets seized.

The Holocaust Educational Trust, an educational charity promoting greater understanding of the Holocaust, cited several cases in its report, including:

*One man, according to bank officials' own summary, "lost 13 members of his family in concentration camps, and all his family property was confiscated. He only saved his own life by going underground and thus lost his own property. When he got back, the property was nationalized without compensation." He escaped from communism, but he was turned down because he had not been deprived of his liberty.

*A woman who had been subjected to frequent interrogations by the Romanian Iron Guards at her home early in the war survived by living with non-Jewish families and then was persecuted as a capitalist by the new communist government. She was refused her money because her conditions were not "extremely harsh."

The British Foreign Office decided that Jews could still be "enemies" even though they had been deprived of their rights as citizens by the Nazis and communists. Those who tried to get their money back were refused on grounds they had not left enemy territory (which they could not) or did not apply in time — which many could not since they were living behind the Iron Curtain.

The few victims who managed to clear the initial hurdles to recovering their property usually ran into more as a cash-starved Britain continually raised the bar for Jewish claimants.

By the mid-1950s the British attitude began to change, at least toward dormant accounts of Jews from non-enemy counties, but getting money returned was rare because "nobody knew the money was there," Ward said.

Those who think they may have or be heir to a dormant account should write to Robin Cook, the British foreign secretary, Trust officials suggest.

Douglas M. Bloomfield

Douglas M. Bloomfield is the president of Bloomfield Associates Inc., a Washington, D.C., lobbying and consulting firm. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC.