In the waning days of World War II, U.S. troops opened the doors of a Nazi boxcar to find the spoils of war: crystal, artwork, gold and more that had been seized from Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust. The items were not returned.
They were plundered by American officers, who walked away with fine rugs for their floors and china for their tables. Other pieces were auctioned off to raise money for relief agencies. Some just disappeared.
For nearly six decades, the U.S. government staved off survivors’ efforts to win compensation for their property -- until the survivors found legal recourse last year at a converted car dealership in Little Rock. There, among former President Clinton’s archives, were 58 boxes of documents, many of them never seen by the public, describing the looting of the train.
The papers, including documents generated by the Army in the 1940s and notes from a commission on Holocaust assets that Clinton established in the 1990s, made clear that the federal government violated its own restitution policies when the property was not returned.
The documents helped resuscitate the survivors’ claims, and today settlement negotiations are underway in their lawsuit against the government -- talks that could result in the first U.S. payment to Holocaust survivors.
It is a stark example of the intense and early interest surrounding Clinton’s archives as he prepares to open his $165-million library in Little Rock.
“Nobody in the government had taken the time to flesh out the story, either for the benefit of history or for the people themselves,” said Samuel J. Dubbin, a Florida lawyer who represents the Holocaust survivors. “When we went to the archives we found a mountain of evidence.”
Clinton, who served as governor of Arkansas before reaching the White House in 1992, is scheduled to open the nation’s 12th presidential library Nov. 18. When he does, most of the focus will be on the library itself, a five-story structure whose modernist design plays off Clinton’s well-worn allegory of a “bridge to the 21st century.”
For months, however, historians, federal officials and political partisans already have had their eye on an adjoining facility -- the one that houses Clinton’s archives, now that they have been ferried over from the old car dealership where they were stored after he left the White House.
Inside, behind metal detectors and armed guards, archivists are cataloging an astonishing collection of material. In sheer volume, federal government archivists say it is the largest record of any U.S. presidency.
There are nearly 2 million photographs, for instance, whose negatives are being stored in a sealed, high-tech room under ideal conditions: 35 degrees, 35% humidity.
Some are historic, such as the famous images of Clinton smiling as Yitzhak Rabin, then the prime minister of Israel, shook hands with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in 1993. Many aren’t, such as thousands of meet-and-greet handshake photos.
There are 79,000 objects, many of them gifts from world leaders or knick-knacks that Clinton picked up during his travels. Some pieces will wind up on display in the library. Most will be housed in a room that, so far, looks like the warehouse where the Ark of the Covenant gets lost at the end of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Box after box is labeled with chicken-scratch -- “Harlem welcomes President Clinton,” “Damaged Jesus” -- that means something to someone.
There are scores of paintings that were received as gifts -- oil portraits of Columbus’ ships, for instance. One box near the front door says “Cat House”; an archivist explained that it contained one of the shelters where Socks, Chelsea Clinton’s tuxedo cat, spent his days in office.
The main storage area is reserved for what archivists say is the library’s most important collection: 80 million pages generated during Clinton’s tenure, many of them detailed and handwritten exchanges between Clinton and his staff. The documents are under heavy guard, largely because their public release will be controlled carefully, and many will remain confidential for years.
“Can’t see the cameras?” asked David E. Alsobrook, director of the William J. Clinton Presidential Library and a federal archivist for 28 years, as he walked through the room. “Good!”
Clinton is just the third president to fall under the Presidential Records Act of 1978, which established that records generated in the Oval Office, such as memos, briefing books and drafts of policy papers, are owned by the public, not the president. That includes papers, such as the Nazi train records, that are collected or generated by the president’s advisory commissions.
Clinton’s 80 million pages -- more than 27,000 for every day he was in office -- are believed to be far more than those generated by any other president, officials said. There are approximately 50 million documents, for instance, at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley.
Historians debate the quality of the information contained in the archives, said Texas A&M; University historian H.W. Brands. Clinton was mired in scandal and hounded by investigators with subpoena power, Brands said.
“Once it became clear that various investigators could subpoena anything -- diaries or confidential records, anything written between the president and his staff -- I have to guess that a lot of people simply stopped writing things down,” he said.
Clinton’s papers, under federal law, were supposed to remain sealed for five years after he left office.
But Clinton is planning to release a batch of domestic policy documents early, over the next year. An estimated 100,000 pages should be released, including papers that could reveal the inner workings of the White House while devising AIDS policy and welfare reform.
Archivists say they have received dozens of requests to open other portions of the archives early. Many have come from the current White House or federal agencies seeking documents on security or intelligence.
Federal prosecutors have also requested documents related to Clinton’s decision to grant a pardon to financier Marc Rich hours before leaving office. Though Clinton has denied that there was any quid pro quo, Rich’s former wife, Denise, contributed about $450,000 to the Clinton library foundation.
“All of it reflects a continuing interest in some of the unanswered questions of his presidency,” Brands said.
The lawyers representing the Holocaust survivors gained early access to the Clinton records through a court order obtained from a Miami judge.
Many of the documents they found were of no use: some were duplicates, others had been made public previously.
Some, however, had never been seen before and were in Clinton’s archives because they were found by his advisory commission.
Several of those were stunning, said Jonathan W. Cuneo, a Washington attorney and another of the survivors’ lawyers.
In one box, for example, lawyers found a memo written to a State Department official in 1949 by a whistle-blower who worked for the U.S. Army in Austria, where the train had been seized by U.S. troops four years earlier.
Eve Tucker’s memo made it clear that the train had been “looted while in the possession” of the Army. Tucker wrote that when she attempted to expose the corruption, she was told that she was “absolutely helpless.” The Army’s negligence, she wrote, was “hardly short of being criminal.”
“Those are strong words, I know, but hear me out,” her letter said. “There was no control then on what American officers sent home and there is very little now.”
“Basically, we found a treasure trove,” Cuneo said. “The factual story has now been told in a relatively complete and pretty irrefutable way. People can excuse it. They can say it wasn’t as bad as we say it is. But now it is really a matter of degree. Nobody can deny that this happened.”