Conference on Nazi gold brings call for accounting Survivors' time runs short

much left to do

December 05, 1997|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON -- To Roman Halter, the trail of Nazi loot begins with the menorahs and candlesticks dropped by frightened Jews as they were herded from ghettos to death camps more than 50 years ago.

"For years, nobody wanted to listen to us," said Halter, 70, who was born in Poland and survived death camps, forced labor and the Allied bombing of Dresden, Germany.

But now, the world is hearing about the gold and trying to compensate the victims.

The first-ever world conference on Nazi gold concluded yesterday with a call for a speedy accounting of one of the 20th century's most notorious financial crimes, the looting of Europe by Hitler's Third Reich.

Halter, an architect and teacher who lives in Britain and represents groups of Holocaust survivors, prowled corridors and buttonholed delegates and reporters to remind everyone that the conference wasn't just about facts contained in documents -- it was about people and history.

"Certain wrongs in the world must be righted," Halter said. "Not just for the sake of the survivors but for the sake of history.

"Only by ventilating what was done can we avoid certain things. Otherwise, humanity and the human race have no chance."

Time is running out for the aging Holocaust survivors.

And it was time that weighed heavily on U.S. Undersecretary of State Stuart E. Eizenstat.

At the close of a 41-nation conference called to untangle the trail of gold plundered by the Nazis, Eizenstat said: "We must not enter a new millennium -- when the issues of today will begin to be ancient history -- without completing the work before us by Dec. 31, 1999."

Eizenstat said countries should accelerate the pace of scouring archives. He added that needy Holocaust survivors should be swiftly compensated from established funds.

"We're dealing with an extremely declining number of people [Holocaust survivors]," Eizenstat said. "We mustn't allow this to generate into a biological solution.

"These people have a right before they go to the grave that everything possible has been done to uncover the truth. It is a task for this century."

The United States called for a second conference in late spring or early summer of 1998 at the Holocaust Museum in Washington. That conference would deal with other looted assets, including artwork, securities, property and life insurance policies.

The legacy of the Nazi gold still hovers over Europe.

Behind closed doors, politicians, historians and Holocaust survivors sought to piece together the looting of central banks and individuals that helped fuel the German war machine.

The delegates published hundreds of pages of archival records and reports that detailed the systematic plunder and elaborate money-laundering operation, with the gold shipped to neutral countries, mostly to Switzerland.

And they reviewed the postwar effort to divide more than 330 tons of gold recovered by the Allies and returned to the looted countries by the Tripartite Gold Commission, composed of the United States, Britain and France.

Gill Bennett, a British Foreign Office historian, articulated the confusion: "It is quite clear from the records how unclear it is."

For nearly two years, Switzerland has faced harsh criticism for its role as a broker of some three-quarters of the Nazi gold and growing demands for billions of dollars in compensation by the World Jewish Congress.

But the conference showed that Nazi gold also made its way to other countries that were neutral during World War II: Portugal, Spain, Sweden and Turkey. Portugal, Spain and Turkey kept most of the gold they received.

"I would say Switzerland has emerged from this conference with its burden somewhat reduced. People see the broader spectrum, the broader picture," said Thomas G. Borer, the Swiss delegation chief.

Switzerland has established a $190 million fund to aid Holocaust survivors in Eastern Europe, attempted to detail its trade in Nazi gold, and sought to trace money left in dormant accounts by Holocaust victims and some of their victimizers.

"These are matters the Swiss people are facing courageously," Eizenstat said.

But World Jewish Congress Executive Director Elan Steinberg was less impressed: "The Swiss are acting as if it was business as usual. I'm disappointed."

The conference highlighted some splits.

A U.S.-British effort to kick-start a new fund to aid needy Holocaust survivors fell flat. The United States pledged $25 million and the British $1.7 million.

But contributions were received from only five of 15 nations due final payments on the remaining 5.5 tons left in the Tripartite Gold Commission account.

Tripartite Commission documents also remained sealed, despite U.S. efforts for full disclosure.

The Vatican sent only a delegation of observers and declined to open its archives, which many historians claim show financial dealings with the Nazis.

But the documents submitted to the conference provided details of a dark time in Europe, as governments and bankers made frantic, unsuccessful attempts to hide their gold from the German Reichsbank.

The Italians tried to wall off their half of the gold in an underground vault, but gave up the ruse. A Dutch bid to transfer gold to Britain ended when a boat hit a mine and sank, with the Germans salvaging 9.5 tons.

The Czechs got their gold to the Bank of England, only to see 110,000 pounds transferred to Germany when two Czech bankers were threatened with execution.

The coming months could see more revelations.

A report is due on Britain's postwar Labor government recovering debts from Nazi-occupied countries by seizing millions of dollars in frozen wartime bank accounts belonging to Holocaust victims.

The United States will also detail how efforts to extract looted gold from neutral countries were sidetracked by Cold War considerations.

Pub Date: 12/05/97

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