Last February, Elan Steinberg received a surprising call at his New York office. The executive director of the World Jewish Congress heard the Swiss government was about to hand over 774 secret bank accounts that had been opened by Holocaust victims before the Second World War. "I was shocked," he says. "We were negotiating with the Swiss banks to get access to all dormant Jewish accounts opened before 1938. Their unilateral attempt to close the matter made us believe they were scared of what we might find."
The WJC condemned the Swiss move, and entered what Mr Steinberg calls "a period of confrontation". The Swiss banks appeared to hold all the important cards: "They had the archives, they had the files." He now realises how wrong he was.
While the Swiss stonewalled, the WJC made inquiries at the US National Archives in Washington, and stumbled on to evidence of Operation Safe Haven, a collection of secret documents that has profound implications for Swiss banks and many leading German companies. The documents also implicate the British and American governments in a cover-up of assets that were left in Nazi hands, despite documented risks that they might be used to resurrect the Nazi Party.
"We approached the National Archive and inquired if they had any materials from the Second World War relating to Nazi assets," says Mr Steinberg. The archivist replied in March that the US government had initiated an intelligence operation called Safe Haven during the war with the aim of "locating, tracking and receiving Nazi assets that were moved into neutral countries, particularly Switzerland". He suggested the WJC send researchers to inspect the files.
"We were astonished. All sorts of alarm bells began to ring. None of us had ever heard of Safe Haven. We assumed that if the US or British government had records of assets stolen by Nazis, we would have been told." When quizzed about why the documents had never been shown, the archivist's reply was worthy of any Whitehall civil servant. He said nobody had ever asked to see them.
The WJC team found Safe Haven had generated more than two tons of documents which had been kept in storage since the 1950s. They reveal that the Nazis shipped over $6bn (pounds 4bn) of assets to Switzerland under cover of Swiss secrecy laws between 1938 and 1945. Much of this was gold bars made from melting down stolen Jewish property including fillings taken from victims of the Holocaust. At today's prices the hoard would be worth at least $60bn - before interest.
"The Safe Haven paper trail began 50 years ago," says the WJC director, opening a box with more than 15,000 documents marked "Top Secret". "Here we have evidence of the greatest robbery in human history."
But, he says, they face "a terrible dilemma. Do we accept a lump sum compensation from Swiss banks that allows Switzerland to pull down the veil of secrecy again? That would allow victims to get money now. Or do we push to open every closed door, which could take years? Jews who may have a claim on these assets are dying every day. For survivors of the Holocaust there's a clock which is ticking fast." That thought keeps Mr Steinberg working on Safe Haven files every day. The quality of information revealed has persuaded the WJC to keep searching until the full truth is known.
"It's been extraordinary." Last month a researcher called excitedly to say he had found a bank account in Lugano where Hitler sent his royalties from Mein Kampf. "That happens all the time," he says, pulling a document from a pile of files. "This identifies secret Swiss accounts that belonged to Hitler's tailor: 300,000 Swiss francs. That's a good tailor."
The same report from American intelligence identified millions held by Hitler's foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, who was executed in November 1945. Ribbentrop used an employee at the German embassy in Geneva to transfer a fortune in gold that may still be held by banks in Lucerne and Lugano. Ribbentrop may also have helped transfer funds for German industrialists who were planning the post-war return of the Third Reich, and these accounts may still hold billions.
"After the conquest of Holland an escape fund belonging to German industry in Holland of over 10 billions was located," writes a US intelligence agent in May 1946. "We assume that Switzerland, greatly favoured as it was by such transactions, received, if not a higher, at least a treasure of a similar amount."
In the midst of the Safe Haven paper trail, Mr Steinberg stumbled across what he calls the "Odessa Document". It is an account of a meeting held in 1944 which proves German industrialists were preparing to resurrect the Third Reich after the war. They worked with a group of fugitive SS officers, the terrorists of Frederick Forsyth's novel, The Odessa File. Using neutral countries, they planned to accumulate wealth and missile technology that could be funnelled to Nazis working underground in Germany. The plan was never implemented, but the money to fund it has not been recovered.
"The Odessa document was a bombshell, found in a random search," says Mr Steinberg, who compares the analysis of Safe Haven to a huge jigsaw puzzle. The WJC matched the Odessa file to another document from US intelligence which established the existence of the Gustoloff Stiftung, a trust fund "in which were placed the assets and titles of property taken by the Nazis from Jewish businessmen in Germany and the occupied countries". The same US agent who wrote that says Gustoloff was the murdered head of the Swiss Nazi Party, a man regarded by the SS as a revered martyr.
"The Gustoloff Stiftung was clearly there to fund Nazis in the post-war period," says Mr Steinberg, "yet for many years the Swiss denied their banks held any significant Jewish assets looted by the Third Reich."
He is well aware that some of the tainted money may be linked to existing banks and business interests in Switzerland and Germany. One Safe Haven document dated May 1946 gives names, addresses and telephone numbers of over 30 Swiss lawyers who the Allies believed were hiding German assets, including gold and looted art treasures. Many descendants of these lawyers still exist in elite firms throughout Switzerland, and it is not fanciful to suppose that looted Jewish assets were used to build the foundations of today's legal powerhouses. The WJC intends to investigate that hypothesis, as well as putting pressure on such firms as Volkswagen and Leica to reveal if they received stolen goods.
"We have so much here, I know we have far more ghastly evidence of theft to come," says Mr Steinberg. "What surprises me is the treatment Switzerland received in 1945 from the US and Britain." In that year Swiss assets in both countries were frozen as the Allies probed Swiss banks for German accounts. While Safe Haven was still under way the US decided to settle, and the British agreed. The Allies had established that Swiss banks had $400m in German gold. The US and Britain took $60m; the Swiss kept the rest. The Allies agreed to split other German assets held in Switzerland 50/50 with the Swiss government.
"What did the Allies do with that $60m?" asks Mr Steinberg. "Is some of it still in the Bank of England? We'd like to know. Why were the Swiss allowed to keep $340m? We don't know exactly who that money belonged to, but we know it's not the property of Swiss banks." The division is also astonishing. "There's no reason Switzerland should have got half, but they were also responsible for assessing the size of the pie, and we now know their estimate was way too low. There is no honour even among thieves."
Safe Haven also has documents which identify art treasures stolen by Hermann Goering. These include a self-portrait by Van Gogh, along with works by Cezanne and Rembrandt. Many of these masterpieces are still missing, with trails that seem to lead straight to Swiss bank vaults.
The Allied agents who collected information for Safe Haven can find nothing but contempt for Swiss bankers. "The Swiss have given a tremendous amount of assistance to the enemy," writes an official of the US Foreign Economic Administration in January 1945. "Their aid to the enemy in the banking field was clearly beyond the obligations under which a neutral must continue trade with a belligerent, and was dictated by the profit motive of the Swiss banks."
No bank will comment on the Safe Haven documents, which does not surprise Mr Steinberg - the Swiss, he says, are still trying to hide assets stolen by Nazis. A joint commission with the WJC to follow the Safe Haven paper trail began work just two weeks ago. It has full police powers, and was guaranteed unfettered access. The WJC expects the commission, under the former chairman of the US Federal Reserve, Paul Volcker, to conduct a serious investigation of Swiss records for the first time.
"The Senate has taken an interest. They will suspend Swiss banking licences in the US if we do not get satisfaction. New York City will take its investments away from Switzerland. The country's economy will be outcast, like South Africa under apartheid."
In the film The Odessa File, the famed Nazi hunter Simon Weisenthal says: "The SS smuggled out most of their gold and art treasures just before Germany collapsed. A large part of it lies in vaults under the pavements of Zurich." The Russians always believed that, just as they believed in the Odessa. The Allies claimed both were a fiction but Mr Steinberg says they had their reasons: "I'm shocked by the Safe Haven materials but not surprised. The Allies protected war criminals like Klaus Barbie after Hitler fell because of the war that followed, the Cold War. Given that, why wouldn't they protect Nazi assets?"
The report of the Volcker Joint Commission will be awaited with anxiety by all banks and companies named in Safe Haven files. That includes the Swiss National Bank, Volkswagen, Leica, Zeiss, Krupp, Brown-Boveri and hosts of others, all of whom could be forced to pay compensation.
The end of the Cold War has opened many closets for the first time since Hitler fell. Most of the skeletons are now gone, buried in the mass graves of concentration camps. But the culprits and those who assisted them can still be brought to justice. Elan Steinberg will see to that.
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