A 64bn franc question

Have Western countries cheated Jews of the wealth and possessions of their relatives murdered in the war? Emma Daly reports
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Hannah Greenberg's father led her over walls and through cellars, across roof-tops and into the ruins and finally through the gate of the Warsaw Ghetto. She doesn't know how old she was, perhaps four or five. It was 1943, and Avrohom Kestenberg, whose wife had already been taken away by the Nazis, had arranged for Hannah's escape. He armed his only child with false papers and handed her to the family's dressmaker, who sent Hannah to live with a Catholic in the countryside.

"He told me before I left that I'm Jewish, that I have family in Israel and that there will be a nedan, a dowry, for me when I get married, in Switzerland,'' Mrs Greenberg said. "He taught me my Hebrew prayers and my Catholic prayers, and he told me I must say my Hebrew prayers in my mind, but never aloud, that I must go down on my knees and pray the Catholic way until the war is over and he would come to collect me.''

But of course he never returned. Mr Kestenberg was shot in Buchenwald in March 1945; Mrs Greenberg does not know what happened to her mother. In 1964, on a camping holiday in Switzerland, Mrs Greenberg tried for the first time to track down the dowry left by her father. She approached various banks through the official channels, hoping to find not money but some link to the past, a letter from her father, a photograph album. "I got no reply." She tried again in the 1970s, in 1982 and again last year. "They ask for papers but I have none, everything was destroyed. That's why I can't even find out how old I am ... I keep asking the same question: why, after the war, didn't they look for the heirs?"

Mrs Greenberg's story is only one of many. This is the enduring mystery of the Second World War: what happened to the gold, the cash, the jewels, the art stolen by the Nazis, from Jewish victims of the Holocaust, from the coffers of occupied countries and the houses of those who resisted? Towards the end of the war, the US government launched Operation Safehaven in an attempt to track and recover assets the Nazis had deposited in neutral countries in Europe: Sweden, Spain, Portugal, even Ireland, but above all, Switzerland. Allied officials knew that much of the gold sent by the Germans to Switzerland was stolen, and they knew that the Swiss knew. But Safehaven did little to answer the question, nor to compensate victims of the Holocaust, the rightful owners of the booty or their heirs.

Instead, it seems, London, Washington and Paris cut a deal with the Swiss government to divvy up a portion of the loot without regard to the claims of those wronged by the Third Reich. In 1946, Switzerland - its assets in the US frozen by Washington - reluctantly agreed to surrender SFr375m (worth $90m at the time) to the Allies. The first SFr250m represented a portion of the gold bullion - at least $289m of it stolen - shipped to Switzerland by the Nazis. The remainder represented German assets in Switzerland liquidated and split 50-50 with the Allies. The deal absolved Switzerland from further Allied claims.

These details come from documents released by the US national archives this summer and examined by researchers from the World Jewish Congress. They set out to uncover evidence that would help the descendants of Jews murdered in the Holocaust to recover family assets deposited in the financial citadels of neutral Switzerland, but the haul - tens of thousands of official documents - looks likely to reveal far more than what happened to lost Jewish bank accounts.

The early findings prompted outrage; Greville Janner, Labour MP for Leicester W, demanded a full inquiry on Monday into the allegations that Britain knew the Swiss were hoarding Nazi gold. "It was a dirty deal," he said. "It makes me feel sick, I think the whole operation is disgraceful. I'm appalled by it." Malcolm Rifkind, the Foreign Secretary, had said in June that British intelligence services had no information on documents concerning Nazi deposits in Switzerland or Sweden. But this week he agreed to an investigation, following reports of the documentary evidence unearthed in Washington, which includes memos from British officials to their allies and their bosses.

The negotiations in 1946 were tough. The Swiss were loath to part with Nazi gold or cash, but eventually they agreed to the deal, announcing that Switzerland "desired to contribute its share to the pacification and reconstruction of Europe, including the sending of supplies to devastated areas''. And 50 per cent of German assets in Switzerland would be "placed at the disposal of the Allies for the rehabilitation of countries devastated or depleted by the war, including the sending of supplies to famine-stricken people".

We do not know, however, what the Allies did with the cash and why they took money that belonged not only to the German state but to many of its victims.

It appears that the Swiss were extremely economical in their assessment of German property. According to Elan Steinberg, of the World Jewish Congress, one document refers to the interrogation by American agents of one Dr Landwehr, head of the foreign exchange department of the finance ministry in Berlin. He told the Americans that "the sum of German assets that passed into Switzerland amounted to at least 15bn Reichmarks", which in 1945 was equivalent to around $6bn, or pounds 1.5bn. The doctor was told that the Swiss had issued their own estimate of 1bn Reichmarks, a remark he "dismissed with an ironic smile", according to the US agent, who added: "I could not conceal my astonishment.''

According to ledgers of the German central bank detailed in Allied documents, the Nazis stole $748m worth of gold in 1946, of which at least $398m was shipped to Switzerland during the war. The Allies were clearly suspicious of Swiss intentions, concluding that they "lacked good faith" and accusing banks of laundering Nazi gold through Portugal and Spain - $100m "washed through the Swiss National Bank". But they made allowances for gold honestly owned by the Germans and concluded that, so far as the amount of stolen bullion deposited was concerned, "on the fairest assumption the amount of loot taken by the Swiss from the Germans can be estimated at $289m." To reach the value of the gold in today's money, add a nought.

The Nazis plundered many sources; the list of imports recorded by the Reichsbank includes $223m worth of gold from Belgium, $168m from Holland, $46m from Austria, gold from Italy and France, Hungary and Yugoslavia and Poland, Czechoslovakia and Luxembourg. Some of the booty was loaded from the vaults of various central banks, melted down, re-stamped with the German seal and exported.

In a display of unspeakable greed all too well documented, the Nazis collected wedding rings and gold teeth fillings from the bodies mounting in the death camps. And the rest of the booty came as more conventional plunder, from synagogues, museums and the houses of those targeted by the Nazis - mostly Jews. Much of the Dutch gold, for example, had belonged to the country's 140,000 Jews, more than 70 per cent of whom perished in Nazi camps. Archive photos show piles of candelabra and golden trays, cutlery and other family treasures, seized and destined again to be melted down and shipped to safety.

When German soldiers came to expel the Greenberg family from their wealthy, comfortable home, "We lost everything, we walked out as we stood,'' Mrs Greenberg said. The soldiers even stopped her from rescuing a favourite trinket dropped on the floor. "I had a little silver ring with a white stone, with a picture of Shirley Temple on it, all curls. When I think of that ring, I still want to cry.''

Precious metals were not the only riches seized. Ernest Hochsinger, a prominent Viennese barrister, was forced to detail his assets and savings in order to facilitate the confiscation of his property by the Nazis, deporting him to Dachau in 1938. He was later released and fled to Britain, where his daughter, Trude Salisbury, grew up. Her father, she said, "was so destroyed that he would not go back to Vienna to claim his property". "He had been very rich, but he was only allowed to take a pittance and when he died, he was almost a pauper,'' Mrs Salisbury said.

The official thievery against Dr Hochsinger is well documented; the Austrian archives sent Mrs Salisbury a copy of the documents in which he signed away his goods - including two bank accounts in Switzerland containing 15,000 Reichmarks and 1,500 Reichmarks, worth about pounds 1,650 in 1939 - the equivalent of pounds 54,000 today, a sum that with 50 years of interest could run into millions. Mrs Salisbury has written to the bank asking for information about her father's accounts, but is yet to receive a reply.

For 50 years the descendants of Holocaust victims have sought, mostly in vain, to recover money deposited in Switzerland before the War. Jews with foresight, fearful of the future, were encouraged to bank in Switzerland, which enacted secrecy laws to protect the investments of the vulnerable. By a bitter irony, these are the regulations invoked by the Gnomes of Zurich to deflect inquiries into Jewish war-time accounts.

In Washington, the Senate banking committee opened hearings into the issue and has been instrumental in forcing the secretive Swiss bankers to ease their procedures for people searching for relatives' bank accounts. Edgar Bronfman, president of the World Jewish Congress, testified before the committee this year: "What is urgently needed," he said, "is a transparent mechanism to conduct a verifiable audit of all Nazi-era assets, those deposited by Jews and those stolen from the Jews by the Nazis and also deposited in Switzerland ... so that all parties involved can be satisfied justice has been served."

A crack has appeared in the wall of silence: in February, the Swiss Bankers' Association announced it had discovered $32m in 775 accounts that might belong to Holocaust victims, a total that the World Jewish Congress believes is a gross under-estimate. In May, the Association and the World Jewish Congress agreed to set up a joint commission to oversee audits into war- time accounts.

"Judy" is another Briton in pursuit of a pre-war family fortune: her uncle, owner of the Gdansk fishing fleet, slipped out of Poland under a false name on one of his boats in order to hide the family's money, probably in Switzerland. He returned home only days before the Nazi invasion, in an attempt to rescue his family, but was too late. The whole family was wiped out, Judy's grandmother and aunt killed at Auschwitz, her uncle in the Warsaw Ghetto, other relatives at Treblinka. Judy's father, studying medicine in France at the outbreak of the war, survived.

"It was not something that my father talked about. He had a photograph album that he never showed us," Judy said. She knew her father had searched in vain for the family's money and, after going through her father's papers after his death last year, Judy decided to try again in view of the Swiss banking reforms. "I'm not doing this because I feel I'm entitled to the money,'' she said. "I just don't see that the Swiss, or for that matter anyone else, have a right to it." As for the news of the Allied-Swiss deal in 1946, "I'm pretty appalled at that."

The Swiss Ambassador to London, Francis Nordmann, defended that agreement. "It was not at all a secret,'' he said. "We were made to pay SFr250m [$60m at the time] for this gold, so I don't understand why this seems to be a discovery now.'' Furthermore, the Swiss were awarded 50 per cent of German assets as "a kind of compensation", Mr Nordmann said. "Switzerland for its part had claims against the German state."

He added that the Swiss parliament is set to approve a decree to create a panel of experts whose task will be to examine Switzerland's war-time history and behaviour. "This covers also the question of the gold," Mr Nordmann added.

The softening of the Swiss line, however, remains of limited use, according to Herbert Winter, a Zurich lawyer acting for clients seeking access to relatives' accounts. "It is almost as hopeless as in the past," he said, adding that some bank records had been lost or amended during computerisation.

And while Mrs Salisbury and Judy may eventually find the family accounts and prove ownership, there is no way to identify provenance of the stolen gold. Who will be able to claim for family heirlooms or jewellery melted down into Nazi ingots? There can be no compensation for the descendants of all those robbed by the Nazis of life and property.

But as Mr Bronfman told the Senate: "I believe that each dollar recovered represents a little piece of dignity, not just for the survivors who will benefit, but for all mankind who will have demonstrated that it remains morally unacceptable for anyone to profit from the ashes of man's greatest inhumanity to man."