Fifty years as prisoners of war

That a painting by Degas in the National Gallery may have been looted from a Jewish family by Nazis is front-page news. But what of Mr Kellerman's tie-pin, deposited for safekeeping before the War? Or Dr Goldberger 's pounds 344, 12s and 10d? Why have they never been returned?

The last POWs could soon be on their way home. They are held not in prison camps, but on the walls of some of the world's most prestigious art institutions: the artworks by masters old and new that were once looted by the Nazis and are now on public display.

A roll-call of suspect works at Britain's own National Gallery includes paintings by Picasso, Renoir, Degas, Van Dyck and Caravaggio. Gallery officials are to examine the provenance of more than 100 paintings to see whether they were stolen by the Nazis. But even if some of the works turn out to be stolen property, there is no guarantee that they will be returned to their rightful owners. The gallery's director, Neil McGregor, has said: "In law we cannot transfer title. So we cannot give a painting back to an individual, but the individual may want compensation."

Mr McGregor's optimism that the National Gallery's collection will remain intact could be misplaced. Nazi loot, whether of gold bars or of artworks, is no longer a national issue but a global one, as the Swiss banks found to their cost after a final settlement of $1.25bn (pounds 780m) with Jewish organisations over Holocaust-era assets.

The spotlight is now on the National Gallery, but back in the summer of 1998 the international art world faced turmoil after 39 nations, led by the United States and including Britain, France and Germany, pledged to identify works of art looted by the Nazis from Holocaust victims, and compensate their heirs. If those nations follow through on their promises, collections could be disbanded and major institutions across the world could find themselves bereft of pieces they believed they legitimately owned.

"This is the last chapter of the Holocaust and both the Government and museums are taking this issue very seriously," says Janice Lopatkin, of the London-based Holocaust Educational Trust. "Art stolen by the Nazis is dispersed all over the world, but if museums are forced to dismantle collections, then so be it."

The owners of these looted works of art were not the only ones to lose heirlooms. The last anyone heard of Marck Kellerman was when he left London for Poland in 1939, some time before the outbreak of war. Mr Kellerman, a Czechoslovak citizen, applied for a visa at the Polish embassy, and left two pieces of jewellery with his agent in London. They were never collected. His tie-pin and bracelet are all that remains of the millions of pounds' worth of assets deposited in British banks by Holocaust victims.

All efforts to trace Mr Kellerman's family, both in the former Czechoslovakia and in Israel, have proved unsuccessful. The British government would be "more than happy" to return the items if an heir were discovered, says Lord Archer of Sandwell, who is responsible for overseeing restitution for one of the most shameful episodes in Britain's post-war history: the post-war confiscation of monies deposited by Jews, mainly from Central and Eastern Europe, in British banks.

Funds deposited by Jews living in countries that came under Nazi rule helped make up the pounds 367m worth of enemy assets that were frozen in Britain under the 1939 Trading With The Enemy Act. All assets handed over to the Custodian of Enemy Property immediately became the property of the British government. But once the war was over, many Holocaust survivors and the heirs of victims who tried to get their money back ran into a wall of obstruction. British civil servants refused to distinguish between assets deposited by Jews and non-Jews from Nazi-controlled countries, or to take into account that Holocaust survivors and heirs would not have the paperwork necessary to reclaim their funds. Some funds were returned to Jewish claimants, but the odds were stacked especially high against those Holocaust survivors who lived behind the Iron Curtain.

Jews, for example from Romania, who had entrusted British banks with their assets during the war, now found thatthey could not reclaim them, because the Romanian government owed Britain money.

As the scandal over the dormant Swiss accounts gathered momentum, the focus soon moved to other Western countries, even those such as Britain which had fought the Nazis. In January 1997, Christoph Meili, a security guard at Union Bank of Switzerland, saved unique historical bank records from destruction by smuggling them out to Jewish groups. Meili's actions made him a hero to Jewish organisations, but his countrymen responded to his actions with a campaign of threats and vilification. In April 1997, the Meilis fled Switzerland for the US, where they sought asylum after a series of death threats against themselves and their children. In August, the US Congress passed special legislation granting the Meili family residency in America.

In April 1998, the British Foreign Office published a report on the treatment of enemy property during the Second World War. A website of more than 25,000 records of those whose property had been confiscated was launched (www.enemy property.gov.uk). The website itself offers an eerie, state- of-the-art link through computer technology to the now-vanished past of Central European Jewry. Many of the 25,000 names are of Jews who died in the Holocaust, or who have long since gone from the addresses at which they are listed. Here is Dr Leo Von Buday-Goldberger, who vanished when he was taken away by Soviet soldiers in 1945. Dr Goldberger had securities worth pounds 344 12s 10d confiscated. And Mr Kalman Kostelitz, of Dorottya Street, Budapest. Mr Kostelitz had pounds 1,006 11s 4d worth of assets seized. Mr Kostelitz returned to Hungary after the war, but failed to reclaim his assets. No matter that he had been in Bergen-Belsen.

As a Jew, Kalman Kostelitz was an enemy of the Hungarian Fascists and their Nazi allies. As a citizen of post-war Communist Hungary, he was deemed an enemy of Britain. As the holder of a foreign bank account in London, he would, if discovered, have been an enemy of the Hungarian Communists. No wonder he never got his money back.

The monies once deposited by Holocaust survivors will never be returned - they no longer exist. None of the original assets is still held by the British government - apart from Marck Kellermann's jewellery - as all have either been liquidated and used to pay British creditors, or returned to their owners. Now though, the heirs of those account holders, such as Kalman Kostelitz and Dr Leo von Buday-Goldberger, can claim compensation. Last December, Peter Mandelson, then secretary of state for trade and industry, detailed the Government's plans to compensate Nazi victims and their heirs whose assets had been confiscated by the British government.

About pounds 25m has been set aside to deal with claims, which will be paid at today's values. That sum is a starting-point; further funds may become available. The scheme should go some way towards closing what, in Mr Mandelson's words, was "not a glorious chapter in our history".

`Hitler's Secret Bankers: How Switzerland Profited From Nazi Genocide' is published by Simon and Schuster

Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
art
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
Arts and Entertainment
Contestants during this summer's Celebrity Big Brother grand finale
tvBroadcaster attempts to change its image following sale to American media group
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidate on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
Arts and Entertainment
Kate Bush: 'I'm going to miss everyone so much'
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
    Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

    'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

    The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
    Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

    Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

    A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
    The 10 best smartphone accessories

    Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

    Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

    Liverpool v Real Madrid

    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
    West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?