What the archives reveal about stolen treasures

Before the Jews were murdered in the Second World War, they were first robbed
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The Independent Online
The recent opening up of archives closed since the 1940s has suddenly forced Europe to confront a second aspect of the Holocaust - before the Jews were murdered in the Second World War, they were robbed.

Everywhere in occupied Europe - France, Belgium, Holland, Denmark, Yugoslavia, Greece and elsewhere, not just in Germany - Jews had their assets confiscated and their enterprises subject to forced sales. Jews were made to pay discriminatory taxes, their businesses were boycotted, their property was looted, and they were asked huge payments for permission to emigrate or to avoid deportation. Did the Germans themselves do all this? They could not have - there were not enough of them in the occupied territories for the scale of the task. In the event, it was the French, the Belgians, the Dutch, the Danes, the Yugoslavs and the Greeks themselves and the citizens of every country under Nazi control who actually carried out most of the spoliation of the Jews outside Germany.

Questions which have been hardly discussed since the 1940s and 1950s are being asked again. Was the extent of collaboration with the Nazis in the seizing of Jewish assets much greater than previously believed? How well was restitution carried out in Europe after 1945? How adequately did the banks of the so-called neutral countries, particularly Switzerland, handle their responsibilities towards their Jewish customers? Indeed, were these countries "neutral" in any meaningful sense?

These questions will not be side-tracked once more. In France, President Chirac has commendably accepted French responsibility. And Jean Tiberi, mayor of Paris, when faced with the fact that the municipality still owns flats seized from their Jewish owners, said: "Let it be clear and without ambiguity. There were spoliations of the Jews. That is unacceptable, scandalous and ignoble." The accusations against Switzerland have plunged the country into its most serious crisis for 50 years.

Depriving the Jews of their material wealth and means of subsistence was a central aim of Nazi policy from the beginning. The objectives were to eliminate Jewish participation in the economy of Germany and then, later, in the economies of her allies and of her subject and satellite nations. In that part of France, for instance, left unoccupied by German troops until near the end of the war, where the Nazis allowed Marshall Petain to govern from the spa town of Vichy, the anti-Jewish laws of July, 1941, began "en vue d'eliminer toute influence juive dans l'economie nationale..."

Unfortunately, restitution after the war was badly handled for the most part. When hostilities had ceased, governments found many different problems to resolve - Nazi spoliation of the Jews in Germany, Jewish assets transferred to Germany from across occupied Europe, and gold and currency deposits that were Jewish in origin placed by the Nazis with the banks of neutral countries. But attention is now focusing on expropriated Jewish savings and property which were retained in the liberated countries, and assets placed by Jews who were subsequently killed with banks in neutral countries for safe keeping.

Restitution legislation enacted between 1944 and 1947 was inadequate. In most cases, it was restricted to restoration of property available at the time. Where Jewish businesses had been dissolved and their assets dissipated, there was no compensation. Moreover, when the local population had obtained possession of Jewish assets, restitution was rarely attempted. Small values were often totally excluded for administrative reasons (a particularly cruel regulation for poor families). And while claimants often gained the right to sue for the return of their stolen property, this was only the beginning; they then had to undertake expensive and protracted litigation. There was little humanity in any of this. How could Jewish orphans know exactly what their parents had possessed? How could the few survivors find the strength to carry their cases to a successful conclusion?

Officialdom, too, was unhelpful and sly where it was not actually deceitful. One example will suffice for many. In 1949, the French authorities had in their possession around 2,000 paintings and objets d'art seized from Jews but still unclaimed. Few attempts had been made to find the owners or their heirs. Instead, the stolen works were put on show in a sort of lost property exhibition outside Paris for a short period; no catalogue was published. Then the pictures and objects not reclaimed during the exhibition were placed in French museums, where they can be found today - 1,878 of them at the Louvre.

Let us not be smug. Had we been occupied and then liberated, there is no reason to think that we would have behaved better than the French, the Belgians, the Dutch, the Danes and the others. Parliament would probably have put equally flawed restitution legislation onto the statue book. The National Gallery might not have acted differently to the Louvre. Nor can we assume that Barclays, Lloyds, Midland Bank and NatWest would have been any more diligent in safeguarding Jewish assets than the Swiss banks appear to have been. In Britain, these outcomes would have been explained by the same good and bad reasons as on the Continent - the priority which had to be given to post-war reconstruction, the view that restitution should not be disruptive, a fear of fraudulent claims; but also a persistent, low-level anti-Semitism and the malign role of bureaucrats for whom imagination and sympathy are dangerous concepts. What the new material from the archives is showing us is ourselves.