Nazi Gold Conference: How we can keep the memory of evil alive

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The Independent Online
Last Wednesday I visited Budapest. At the turn of the century a fifth of the population there were Jewish. On Thursday I went to Prague, where the Nazis brought Jewish artefacts to build a Museum of Extinct People. On Friday I visited the Jewish memorial in Poland, where three million Jews died. The numbers are just too big to imagine, but the tales of just a few of the victims and survivors soon become too much to bear. Europe is so much the poorer for their loss.

For them, compensation will never be possible. But we can remember. We must document the evidence, gather the facts, locate the truth. We must tell the stories of the victims, to deny the Nazis success in their mission to eradicate their humanity. We must tell the stories to our children, not as dry history or academic debate, but in a way that will teach them the dangers of prejudice and hatred. Keeping the memory of this evil alive is our best defence against it happening again.

One of my first acts as Foreign Secretary was to call for a conference about Nazi gold. I was convinced that by bringing together everyone connected with the subject - the experts, the governments, the victims - we could pool our knowledge and talk through the difficult questions. Doing so might answer some unanswered questions, and erase some of the bitterness.

The London Conference on Nazi Gold opens today in Lancaster House. It brings together experts and officials from over 40 countries, six organisations representing the survivors, and four institutions that actually handled the Nazi gold - more expertise than has ever been gathered on this subject before. The conference is not an inter-governmental conference designed to take decisions, or to pass judgement and apportion blame. It will instead allow everyone involved the chance to talk through the issues - whom the gold came from, what the Nazis did with it, what happened to it after the war.

There is still a lot of suspicion from survivors and the families of victims. Many believe that there has been a cover-up, and that governments are hiding the facts. I hope this conference will go some way towards assuaging these suspicions. The Foreign Office has published two detailed historical papers on the subject, with all the source material available at the Public Records Office. Other countries have also set up commissions to investigate this issue.

After the War the Allies gathered all the hoarded Nazi gold they could find. The gold in monetary form they put into the Tripartite Gold Commission's fund, and they have distributed almost all of it to the former occupied countries from which it was looted. The gold that was not in monetary form was used to help meet the urgent needs of the refugees.

Two especially sensitive questions need addressing. The first is whether gold that had been stolen from individuals became mixed up with the monetary gold. Our research suggests that very small amounts may have been. The second is the question of compensation - for individuals and for countries. The conference will look at what has been done so far, and what further might be done. I hope it will acknowledge the good as well as the bad - the good faith of the Allies in meeting the pressing needs of the time, of the Swiss who have set up a special fund for the individual victims of the Nazis, and of the Germans who have paid out over DM100bn in compensation.

The Tripartite Commission still holds pounds 40m worth of gold. The three countries of the Commission - ourselves, the US and France - still have an obligation to return this to the former occupied countries. But there is a pressing need for assistance to be given to the remaining survivors. Otherwise we risk a second tragedy - letting the victims of the Nazis live out their lives in penury. This is why we have proposed a voluntary fund, to which the recipient countries can give some or all of their final payment from the commission. The response we have got from the recipient countries has been positive, and I will be launching the fund today.

This is not going to erase the sadness and the loss. It can be no compensation for those the Nazis killed, or those survivors who have died already. It must not weaken the memory of what happened. But I hope it will help those victims of the Nazis who are still alive, and show that we are serious in remembering those who are not.