Tracking the Nazi Plunder


As if dealing with tons of looted gold were not difficult enough, the world community must now decide what to do about tens of thousands of paintings, sculptures and other works of art confiscated by the Nazis during World War II.

The plundered works--probably worth billions of dollars in today's overheated art market--will be at the top of the agenda as representatives of 44 countries gather in Washington this week to attempt to sort out the tangled legacy of Nazi loot.

The art was stolen as Adolf Hitler's armies rampaged across Europe. Some of it was destroyed during the war, but much survived and now hangs in galleries and private collections across the globe. Many current owners were ignorant of its history when they bought it.

The conference, to be held at the State Department, will also consider the disposition of real estate, life insurance policies, bank accounts and, of course, gold stolen from Jews who perished in the concentration camps, and from conquered governments and other victims of Hitler's Third Reich.

More than a half-century after the fact, returning the assets to their original owners seems out of the question. But U.S. sponsors of the conference say the world community must try to make restitution and, perhaps more important, study the causes of the Holocaust so that nothing like it can happen again.

"This is not intended to only be a look to the past, it is to look at what lessons can be drawn from this ghastly tragedy which may be relevant as we enter the 21st century with a whole host of genocidal situations," said Undersecretary of State Stuart E. Eizenstat, Washington's point man on Nazi plunder.

Help for Some of the Survivors

The conference is a follow-up to a meeting held a year ago in London that focused on hundreds of tons of gold the Nazis confiscated from central banks of conquered countries and stole from Holocaust victims. Some of the gold had been melted down from the jewelry and dental fillings of the millions of people who died in the gas chambers.

Participants in the London conference agreed to establish a fund to assist aging survivors of the Holocaust, tapping some of the gold that was recovered by the victorious allied armies as the war ended.

As complicated as the gold issue has been, however, the disposition of looted art is far more complex. Most of the rightful owners of the paintings and other art objects are dead. Most of the current holders of the art did not realize they were buying stolen goods.

Nazi forces stole an estimated 220,000 pieces of art, possibly as much as a quarter of all the art in Europe. According to Eizenstat, "tens of thousands" of those pieces survive.

If the international community decides to try to return the works to the heirs of original owners, it could disrupt the art market, especially for French Impressionist paintings, which were a favorite target of Nazi looters.

"The portion of the conference concerning Nazi-confiscated art will provide a balanced view of the history of the problem," Eizenstat said.

Putting a Stop to Future Trading

Delegates at the conference will hear from Holocaust survivors, historians, academicians, experts and representatives of private galleries, he said. The sponsors also hope to create an Internet site to help identify art of questionable ownership.

Eizenstat offered no suggestions about what should be done to restore art to its original owners.

Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies in Los Angeles, said the conference will "put pressure on museums and major art collectors" to refrain from trading in looted art. But he expressed sympathy for owners who innocently bought paintings without knowing they had been stolen.

"In no way should these people be faulted," Hier said. "They were probably misled themselves. It is not the same as the Swiss bankers who knew in advance that it was Nazi gold" they were acquiring.

Eizenstat said the conference will also tackle the topic of confiscated synagogues, Christian churches and other real estate owned before the war by religious and community groups. Although much of the property in Western Europe was returned decades ago, religious property was converted to other uses in the Eastern European countries ruled by Communist governments.

Eizenstat estimated that as many as 5,000 pieces of property are involved in Poland alone, with thousands of other sites in other former Soviet bloc countries.

"We hope that the conference will help elevate this issue and encourage more rapid return of property, or if the property can't be returned, at least some measure of compensation," Eizenstat said.

In Poland, the picture is further clouded by the near total destruction of the country's Jewish community in the death camps. Before the war, there were 3.5 million Jews living in Poland; today the number is about 10,000, statistically about two people for every disputed piece of property.

Hier, who plans to attend the conference as an observer, said some delegates will suggest a compromise to give title to Israel for at least some of the Polish property.

In addition to trying to sort out the loot, Eizenstat said the United States wants the conference to "complete a historical record [of the Holocaust] before the end of the millennium." He called for the opening of all archives that remain closed.

Archives Issue May Be Troublesome

Hier said the issue of archives may prove to be the most important and most contentious one facing the conference.

At the London conference, he said, the United States and Britain agreed to make public the minutes of the U.S.-British-French commission that was established after the war to repatriate gold recovered by the victorious allied troops. But the records remain closed.

Hier said the gold distribution appears to have been skewed by Cold War politics. But without the records, there is no way to be sure.

Moreover, Hier said, the Vatican refuses to open its archives to historical researchers.

The Vatican has published 18 volumes of records covering the World War II era, Hier said, but some documents are clearly missing.

"When Pius XII took over as pope, it is well known that the first letter that he wrote was to Adolf Hitler," Hier said. "It is certain that Hitler responded. Those are not included."

He added that Britain has refused to open the wartime records of its MI-5 intelligence service.

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