In the last week, the governments of Poland, Germany and the Czech Republic have assured Israel that they are committed to opening Holocaust-era archives, according to Bobby Brown, Israel’s diaspora affairs adviser.
And in a development termed a “real breakthrough” by U.S. Undersecretary of State Stuart Eizenstat, the Russian government has agreed to return to Holocaust victims or their heirs works of art looted by the Nazis. A Moscow representative to a Holocaust-era assets conference in Washington surprised delegates by pledging to identify and return “victim art” stolen from individuals and religious and community centers by the Nazis and then seized as “reparations” by the Soviet government.
At the same time, France rejected a call by the World Jewish Congress to auction more than 2,000 works of its museum art for the benefit of Holocaust victims and their families. France has already acknowledged that these art works were stolen by the Nazis.
The assurances by European governments that they would open their archives came after Brown castigated them and others in Europe and Russia for having “refused or been uncooperative in sharing information” with researchers. In a Nov. 22 letter, Brown named archives held by the Vatican, the French National Archives, the files of the British Custodian of Enemy Property, the British MI5 intelligence agency, the central archives of the Czech Republic and the Prague Jewish Museum.
“We appeal to each institution listed to open their files so that we may learn why civilized society failed in its basic commitment to ensure the safety, lives, liberty and property of our people,” Brown wrote.
But in a phone interview from Washington, where he is attending an international conference on the fate of Nazi-looted art and property, Brown said “more than half of the governments have now come forward and said that [despite] whatever problems exist, they are committed to making the archives fully accessible. They said they were strongly in favor of public access. …We want solutions, not confrontation.”
Brown said his letter was not critical of the German government but of German municipal institutions. But the German government responded to his letter, said Brown, telling him that “it is ready to be a go-between with these institutions.”
Brown said that the British MI5 intelligence agency has “decided to look over its archives and see if they pertain to the Holocaust-era. We consider that a wonderful development.”
But asked if the archives would be opened to the public, Brown paused.
“It’s a first step,” he said, adding that in general he was pleased with the reaction his letter generated.
In answer to critics who said Brown’s letter smacked of a blacklist, he said Israel has “no possibility, nor do we want, to do sanctions.”
Regarding Poland, Brown said the Polish government assured him that the problems encountered “were technical in nature. The Polish government said it would do whatever it could take [to open the archives].”
He noted that the Polish government has become receptive to restoring Jewish communal property stolen by the Nazis. Although press reports have valued the property at $3 billion, Brown said the government of Israel has not placed a dollar figure on it.
The Czech Republic last week announced the establishment of a commission that by March would identify all Jewish property confiscated by the Nazis for the purpose of returning it to its owners. If it cannot be returned, the government said it would create a compensation fund.
Thomas Kraus, the executive secretary of the Federation of Jewish Communities in Prague, told The Jewish Week that his organization is also seeking the return of Jewish property now owned by municipalities and individuals. He said his group was conducting its own negotiations with the Czech government and did not need the help of the World Jewish Restitution Organization, an umbrella group. He said he has a list of 202 such properties and that about half have already been returned, from which the Jewish community is deriving about $200,000 in rental income. But Naftalie Lavie of the WJRO disputed that figure, saying no more than 50 buildings had been returned.
The Vatican, which has said it would not open its archives for the next 70 years, did not reply to Brown’s letter.
Secretary of State Madeleine Albright did not cite the Vatican or any country by name when she echoed Brown’s call for open archives in an address Tuesday to the Washington conference.
“We must dig to find the truth,” she said. “Only by knowing and being honest about the past can we gain peace in the present and confidence in the future.”
Meanwhile, Israel Singer, secretary general of the World Jewish Congress, said the WJRO Organization was conducting discussions with the German government and German companies in a bid to settle slave labor claims and general reparations. In addition, there are talks with the German and Austrian governments seeking to resolve claims against banks and Nazi gold issues.
Elan Steinberg, the WJC’s executive director, said the WJRO has proposed that German industry set up a “global fund” to deal with slave labor claims rather than dealing with it on a piece meal basis. He said that just as the Swiss banks did, it has been suggested that German industry establish a humanitarian fund for needy survivors pending the findings of a commission that would research the issue to establish the size of the global fund.
“We are looking at positive signals from the German government and industry,” said Steinberg.
The German newsmagazine Der Spiegel reported this week that German industrialists were nearing an agreement on a compensation plan for slave workers. It said the German government promised executives of Siemens, Krupp, DaimlerChrysler, BMW and other major firms that it would support them in the face of a series of U.S. lawsuits filed by former slave laborers.
In the meantime, Switzerland’s two largest banks said they were prepared last week to make the first of three installments of their $1.25 billion settlement with Holocaust survivors and their heirs. Before the money is distributed, Brooklyn Federal Judge Edward Korman must approve a disbursement plan.
In another development, two major German banks, Deutsche Bank and Dresdner Bank, have asked a U.S. federal court to dismiss an $18 billion class-action suit filed against them by five survivors. The suit charged the banks with working with Nazis by accepting and selling personal property, including gold teeth and jewelry stripped from Jews by the Nazis.
Also this week, Ford and General Motors issued statements denying that they had any relationship with their German subsidiaries during the Holocaust. Historians and lawyers for survivors contend that they have uncovered documents alleging that the automakers collaborated with their subsidiaries during the time the subsidiaries allegedly worked in collusion with the Nazis.