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Proving Gold to Be a Base Metal

Melvin Jules Bukiet's most recent book is the novel "After" (St. Martin's Press). He teaches at Sarah Lawrence College

Imagine that it’s 1945 and you’ve got a pail full of gold teeth hammered from the skulls of murdered Jews. Or a gold bar made from same. Or an admixture including same. What difference does it make? The point is that you’ve got a fortune. Nobody else knows this. Now let’s say that you’re an American Army sergeant looking forward to a house in Levittown. Or maybe you’re a German soldier at a recently liberated concentration camp who simply stumbled across the loathsome horde. Or perhaps you’re in the walnut-paneled office of a limestone-clad bank overlooking Lake Geneva, sitting on the only earthly remains of those who have decamped for a better world. What do you do?

If you’re a Swiss banker, you’ll put the loot in your deepest vault and pretend to forget about it and hope that the world also forgets until it’s clean. How long will you have to wait--one year, one century? Accustomed to bonds and mortgages, bankers have long time frames. But not as long as some people. Like Rip Van Winkle roused from an extended nap, the world has awakened to the issue of so-called Nazi gold (which may or may not include teeth--or merely candelabra--or simply the spoils of prewar national banks whose depositors included Jews) and now it seems that the bankers can’t get any sleep.

Detectives have a phrase they use to help determine the trail of guilt from crimes of venality: Follow the cash. Yet even money that hasn’t been “laundered’ of its criminal origins is the hardest thing to trace, because it is the consummately fungible commodity, one dollar as good as the next, one gold bar indistinguishable from another . . . unless it happens to bear the stamp of the Reich eagle. Even then, however, you can melt it, recast it and no one will be the wiser . . . unless the meticulous records you’ve kept are accidentally uncovered--the bankers’ habit become the bankers’ bane.

How unpleasant. In Switzerland, home of chocolate, cuckoo clocks and airtight bank secrecy statutes, finger-pointing by strident scolds must feel especially vulgar. For the past year, the Swiss banking system has been drawn into one shabby contretemps after another as allegations have surfaced of anti-Semitism, evidence tampering and complicity in genocide through financial accommodation. And what’s at the root of it all? Not the racist Nazi mania, just that most mundane of human emotions, greed.

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The value of the gold remaining from Nazi Germany’s assets has been placed anywhere from double-digit millions to billions, and last week the United States, Britain and France agreed to freeze the $68 million remaining in New York’s Federal Reserve, perhaps to be used as the foundation of a fund to reimburse survivors and heirs.

The figures are all equally hypothetical, because nothing can begin to represent the pain behind how the gold was lost. No fiduciary payment is adequate, no apology sufficient, no moral solution final. All that’s left, the owners long gone to ashes, is the gold, its allure still intense.

In fact, it’s rather amazing that it has taken 50-plus years to call these numbers to account. But for those most concerned, other issues have taken precedence. For decades, the survivors strived to make new lives. Some of them tried to forget their past, while others chanted “Never forget” and never imagined the financial consequences of their memory.

But money, like history, never disappears. This entire episode recalls Edgar Allan Poe’s brutal short story “Berenice,” in which a monomaniac tells of his fascination with his bride’s teeth, which so captivated him that he ripped them from her corpse. In uniquely Poe fashion, the undead body awakes to shriek the narrator’s guilt, proved by “thirty-two small, white, and ivory-looking substances that were scattered to and fro about [my study] floor.”

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As all writers of the macabre know, teeth are the last human remains to retain their substance and also those that most clearly identify their owners. And even if the ivory is chipped off and tossed in the trash, and all that is left is the precious fillings, they can in this instance identify the religion of their owners, Judaism, because no other people so completely bore the brunt of German ferocity.

How ironic that the ultimately fungible mineral and the ultimate bearers of human identity are commingled in this single image. And now that image has come back, like Berenice, to haunt the possessors, as reporters worldwide and researchers cry out their findings from musty archives.

Yet even if it is determined what precise sums are out there, a more complex question remains: Who gets the gold? Investigators may follow paper trails to the legitimate heirs--of which I am one--but maybe the real question should be: Who wants it?

Although this godsend might do palpable good for needy individuals and worthy institutions, I feel that it is still somehow unclean. Unlike laundered money, this gold never will shed the awful scent of its catastrophic origins. And arguing about the disposition of this despicable fortune is as unseemly as any family squabbling over the estate of a corpse not cold--and 6 million burnt bodies will never cool. Besides, a senior U.S. official has advised that, due to the incredible logistical problems, any distribution must be “symbolic.” So maybe whatever commission ends up in charge should make the only appropriately symbolic gesture in keeping with religious customs.

Among Orthodox Jews, the human body is sacred. Hence we see photographs of bearded men scraping sidewalks after bus bombings in Tel Aviv, trying to recapture all that’s left in order to respectfully deposit any shred of flesh or drop of blood in the coffin. But the people whose teeth irreparably taint the Nazi gold have no coffins. So, if even one baby incisor remains inside the bullion, I say reunite it with its owner in the one place left to that child: Bury the gold at Auschwitz and let it rot in hell.


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