Joel Hilton Fisher, 79, lawyer who helped locate treasures hidden by Nazis

September 30, 1997|By Fred Rasmussen | Fred Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Joel Hilton Fisher, a Washington lawyer who helped locate gold, silver and artwork hidden by the Nazis at the end of World War II, died Saturday of heart failure at Levindale Hebrew Geriatric Center and Hospital. He was 79 and a former Washington resident.

In 1943, he was commissioned as an ensign in the Coast Guard and was assigned to Alaska, where he developed plans to protect Alaskan ports from sabotage.

In 1944, he was promoted to lieutenant commander and reassigned to the fiscal branch of the Supreme Headquarters of the Allied Expeditionary Force in London.

Later appointed deputy chief of finance for SHAEF in Paris, he established procedures to handle the stores of German gold and to ensure that looted artwork, books, manuscripts and other valuables were inventoried and protected.

During the closing months of World War II, Mr. Fisher commanded a task force of 75 officers and enlisted men whose job was to take control of gold, artwork and other stolen assets the Nazis abandoned as they retreated.

He helped to secure and inventory hundreds of bags of looted currency from France, Norway and Belgium as well as gold coins, bars of bullion and other treasure that had been secreted in a series of salt mines in Merkes, a small town near Weimar, Germany.

His group also discovered crates of wedding rings, gold teeth inlays and silver picture frames that had been taken from Jews and others sent to Nazi concentration camps. The value of the treasure found in these mines was estimated at the time to be worth more than $2 billion.

After the liberation of Paris in 1944, Mr. Fisher became acquainted with former Baltimorean and writer Gertrude Stein and her companion Alice B. Toklas as well as artist Pablo Picasso.

"Once a week he would take them to the post exchange to buy their groceries," said his daughter, Susan F. Sullam of Mount Washington.

For nearly four decades until his retirement in 1989, Mr. Fisher headed Fisher, Sharlitt and Gelband, a legal firm that specialized in aviation law.

He represented foreign carriers such as British Airways, Air India and Air France. He also maintained an interest in theatrical law, serving as Washington counsel for the New York Theater Guild and a number of New York producers and theater owners.

He was born in New York and spent his early childhood in Baltimore, where his father owned Fisher Drygoods on Hopkins Place.

After the father's death in 1928, the family returned to Brooklyn, N.Y., where Mr. Fisher graduated from high school. He earned his bachelor's degree from Syracuse University in 1939, and his law degree from Syracuse University School of Law in 1941.

In 1946, he married Mary Jane Johnson and, in 1947, the couple moved to Paris, where he was general counsel for the American-Jewish Joint Distribution Committee in Europe, which helped to resettle Jewish refugees.

In 1950, he returned to Washington where he established his law practice, which operated until 1990.

He was a member of the Federal Bar and the Washington Bar. He belonged to a number of international legal and aviation organizations. From 1993 to 1997, Fisher also served as a consultant to the director general of UNESCO.

He and his first wife were divorced in 1957. In 1958, he married Helene Aaronson Rich, who died in 1991.

In addition to his daughter, Mr. Fisher is survived by a son, John B. Fisher of Havre de Grace; a brother, Alvin Fisher of Los Angeles; a stepson, Frank Rich of New York; a stepdaughter, Polly Rich of Washington; and four grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held at 11: 30 a.m. today at Joseph Gawler's Sons, 5130 Wisconsin Ave., N.W., Washington.

Memorial donations may be made to the Syracuse University College of Law, Suite 248, Syracuse, N.Y. 13244-1030.

Pub Date: 9/30/97

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