Nazi Gold: Give cash to families, not nations, says Cook

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The Independent Online
Robin Cook wants to use pounds 40m of gold bullion in the vaults of the Bank of England to compensate victims of the Holocaust and their families. At present, 15 governments whose gold reserves were pilfered during the war want the money. Our Correspondent reports from Warsaw.

A bleak siding at Umschlagplatz, near the centre of Warsaw, was the last sight of freedom for 300,000 Polish Jews. From this spot between 1942 and 1943, they were rounded up, loaded into cattle trucks and transported to Auschwitz.

In biting wind, standing at the same desolate site yesterday, the Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, laid a wreath to honour the Warsaw Ghetto victims, to mourn what he called the "tremendously tragic pointless waste of so much human life".

He also pledged to press the international community to "set the record straight" and end the wrangling which has denied Holocaust survivors and other Nazi victims the right to know what happened to billions in gold and other assets stolen or hidden from them since the war.

The markings of the old railway line are still visible at Umschlagplatz . On the stark white marble monument covered with the names of victims it says simply: "Along this path of suffering and death over 300,000 Jews were driven from the Warsaw Ghetto to the gas chambers of the Nazi extermination camps."

After his visit to the memorial Mr Cook said: "Keeping alive the memory of the Nazi victims is our duty, as is reparation to those who survive."

Mr Cook used his visit to the memorial to propose the launch of a pounds 40m fund which for the first time would direct help to individual concentration- camp survivors and their families. Britain wants backing for the reparation fund when representatives of 41 governments gather from Tuesday to try to unravel with historians and other experts the full mystery of gold looted by the Nazis.

"Today some pounds 40m still remains to be distributed. Britain has proposed that the remaining gold be used to set up a fund to compensate individual Holocaust victims and their families, particularly those who so far have received little or no compensation for their suffering".

But the Foreign Secretary also called on participating countries, which include the Swiss and other neutrals whose banks are thought to have hoarded vast amounts of money deposited by Jews before the war, to "set the record straight". The three-day conference would have to bring "all the facts into the open," he said. "Those who suffered so, yet still survive, deserve to know the full truth."

About 240 delegates from the 41 countries and a number of Jewish organisations will be attending the Nazi-gold conference in London.

The stated purpose of the conference is historical. It will examine where gold looted by the Nazis during the war came from and what happened to it.

It will review what has already been done to make good the losses suffered by countries and to make restitution to individuals. And it will examine the case for further compensation.

Almost $4bn of gold looted by the Nazis and recovered by the Allies after the war has been handed back to occupied countries such as Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg whose gold reserves were looted by the Germans.

Some five tonnes of the recovered gold pool - less than 2 per cent - remains in the Bank of England, worth around pounds 40m.

It is this symbolic amount that Britain wants to see handed over for the benefit of individual survivors and their families.

While 15 countries have laid claim to the remaining gold, the proposal from the three - Britain, France and the US - which made up the Allied Tripartite Gold Commission after the war, is that governments should relinquish their demands and agree that the money should instead go to individual victims.

Foreign Office research has concluded that of the gold held in the Bank of England at least some must be private assets, in other words smelted- down gold teeth and items of jewellery taken from victims. Allied forces found hoards of gold stashed near the concentration camps.

"There is a strong likelihood that some personal gold, including teeth and jewellery, were mixed up with monetary gold," a Foreign Office spokesman said. British officials said the Government would be appealing to the goodwill of participants at the conference rather than on the basis of any legal evidence on the ownership of what remains. "This is a moral question: we have money for distribution, the remaining survivors are getting older, so the next few years will be the last chance to deal with it during their lifetimes," said a spokesman. A minor setback is that a report on British policy towards enemy property frozen in Britain at the end of the war is not yet complete and will be published after the conference. It has been suggested that some assets remain in British banks which could and should have been returned to victims of Nazism. And one official warned yesterday that the conference should not be seen as a "quick fix". "At least 10 years' minimum work is needed on an international scale before these questions are resolved."