U.S. commission will examine countrys Holocaust-era assets

WASHINGTON — Jewish groups welcomed a move last week by U.S. lawmakers to create a presidential commission to examine Holocaust victims' assets in the United States.

The proposed commission would be charged with examining the fate of dormant bank accounts, artworks, insurance policies, looted gold and a range of other assets that made their way to the United States during the Holocaust era.

"While we have sought answers from Switzerland and other nations on the disposition of dormant bank accounts and Nazi gold, we have not pursued those same issues here in the United States, and thus the search begins," said Sen. Alfonse D'Amato (R-N.Y.), who is sponsoring legislation to create the commission together with Sen. Carol Mosley-Braun (D-Ill.) and a bipartisan group in Congress.

Reps. James Leach (R-Iowa) and Sam Gejdenson (D-Conn.) are the lead sponsors in the House.

The legislation, introduced last week, is likely to pass easily.

Stuart Eizenstat, undersecretary of state for economic affairs and the Clinton administration's point man on Holocaust restitution issues, endorsed the creation of the commission, saying it "will strengthen further our moral authority and diplomatic credibility around the world."

Twelve other nations, including Switzerland, have already set up national commissions to probe their handling of Holocaust assets.

The United States last year released a major report examining Switzerland's wartime gold transactions and U.S. policy toward looted assets. A second U.S. report, dealing with the way countries that remained neutral during the war handled looted assets, is due out at the end of the month, Eizenstat said.

The proposed 23-member Presidential Advisory Commission on Holocaust Assets in the United States would include private citizens, officials of federal agencies, members of Congress and the chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council.

The commission would be charged with issuing a final report to the president and making recommendations no later than Dec. 31, 1999 — a date Eizenstat has said should be a target for all nations to complete historical research and commit to restitution.

"We will send a message: that the United States government will leave no stone unturned in our determination to address the fate of Holocaust assets as we enter the new millennium," Eizenstat said.

The World Jewish Congress and other Jewish groups welcomed the idea of a presidential commission.

Elan Steinberg, executive director of the WJC, said the commission "will certainly encounter a historical record, which even in the case of the United States was not unblemished."

"You're not going to find that the U.S. itself was holding on to large sums belonging to Holocaust victims," Steinberg said. "But we cannot run away from the responsibility that we allowed others to do so, and that our facilities were used in the postwar period for that purpose."

In a related development, Eizenstat announced that the State Department and the Holocaust museum will co-host an international conference in Washington, D.C. from Nov. 9 to 12 , to focus on insurance policies, artwork and other Holocaust assets.