Declassified war documents solve mysteries

SUN JOURNAL

Files: Newly opened records of the CIA's predecessor create a `cottage industry' of historians hired to answer a generation of questions.

July 30, 2000|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

COLLEGE PARK - While researching America's spy network in 1992, Timothy Naftali came across a reference to a secret operation on the theft of royal scabbards from Ethiopia: Code name, Dagger.

The notation, in an obscure cable in material at the National Archives, led the doctoral student down a paper trail that ended with an empty file. The spy masters had pulled the documents on Dagger and marked them classified.

The file remained closed until the CIA recently released 400,000 pages of classified documents related to World War II, Holocaust assets and Nazi crimes.

And Naftali, now a historian, learned that the Office of Strategic Services, forerunner of the CIA, was intimately involved in recovering the stolen items and returning them in 1945 to Haile Selassie, the ruler of Ethiopia.

The details of the operation revealed church assistance to the thief, an Italian army official who hid the loot in a church tower in Rome and a nearby orphanage.

For researchers and historians, the newly released records contain the missing pieces of unfinished puzzles, the clues to a thousand unsolved mysteries, the answers to a generation of questions.

The OSS records relate to a variety of subjects, from looted art to Hitler's nurse, from the deportation of Italian Jews to the execution of French saboteurs, from German weapons research to German lingerie manufacturers, from executions in Crete to immigration to Palestine.

Gregory Bradsher, a government archivist who developed an index to the newly declassified documents, says he has received more than 600 e-mail inquiries about the new material.

The Swedish Embassy wanted to know whether there was anything new on Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who helped save Hungarian Jews.

A Chicago journalist asked about looted musical instruments. The Museum of Modern Art in New York inquired about stolen art.

The material - and previous releases of documents that date to 1996 - has created job opportunities for historians and researchers who have been hired to piece together the puzzles, solve the mysteries, answer the questions for foreign governments, corporations, law firms, U.S. agencies, Jewish organizations and others.

"This has created a cottage industry," says Bradsher.

Today, Naftali is a University of Virginia professor with an expertise in intelligence matters and a contract to review the material.

While sifting through the records at the National Archives, Naftali stumbled across a reference to the royal theft from Ethiopia, just as he did eight years ago.

"There it was - my Dagger file," says Naftali, who is working as a consultant to a presidential panel charged with identifying and declassifying Nazi war criminal records in America's file cabinets.

The file described the role of the OSS in returning the loot to the Ethiopian monarch in 1945. It included photographs of 200 pieces of table silver, royal scabbards, a golden eagle throne ornament and a cache of papers stolen by Italian army Marshal Rudolfo Graziani, says Naftali.

Among the stolen items were secret British cables that the OSS wanted to keep secret - they believed they could be useful in cracking Britain's code.

The OSS's code name for the marshal was "dagger." The operation was known as Sugen, a palindrome for Negus, a title of royalty referring to the emperor of Ethiopia.

Naftali says his discovery of the Dagger file typifies the scope of material in this batch of records, a hodgepodge of facts and scenarios that relate to the activities of wartime intelligence operatives but don't necessarily tell the whole story about an operation.

"These are like the greatest hits from a huge collection of 12 million pages," he says.

Miriam Kleiman began her work in the research room of the National Archives in March 1996. The World Jewish Congress had hired her for two days to review recently declassified Nazi-era documents for information on stolen assets.

"I got lucky on my second day," says Kleiman, 33, of McLean, Va. "I found a list of Swiss bank accounts owned by Jews."

That finding led to a congressional investigation, a class action lawsuit and a $1.25 billion settlement for Holocaust survivors and the families of insurance policyholders who died in Nazi camps.

Kleiman's initial two-day foray into the stacks resulted in a four-year job at a Washington law firm that filed the claims.

Now, she does research as an independent contractor.

"It's really ground zero for the research effort," Kleiman says of the sterile-looking room in the archives building where she and others work.

Kleiman is reviewing the recent material for a national news magazine. She has already discovered one gem, an interview with Adolf Hitler's nurse, Erna Flegel.

Flegel's endearing recollection of the Fuhrer, as reported in U.S. News & World Report, is buttressed by "catty comments" she made about Hitler's mistress, Eva Braun.

Like Naftali, Kleiman stumbled across records of personal interest. They involved a German Jew from Cleveland, Norbert Bloch.

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