Nazi gold meeting tarnished by claims

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 06 December, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 06 December, 1997, 12:00am

It was never going to be an easy matter - to apportion guilt, try to avoid accusations of contemporary greed, and then come up with a new fund for the victims of the Holocaust. Yet that was what this week's conference in London on Nazi gold set out to do.

It ended in acrimony, and instead of fingers being pointed at Switzerland - where about 85 per cent of Nazi gold was smuggled during the war - they were instead directed at the Vatican.

A delegation from the Holy See - which only reluctantly attended the conference - refused to answer questions or even respond to official requests that it throw open its archives in Rome. It is widely accused of laundering huge amounts of gold looted from Holocaust victims during the war.

The Nazi Gold Conference, called by British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook within a week of Labour coming to power, was intended to mark a new era of openness on the subject. But there have been unpleasant U-turns, and disturbing revelations since it was first mooted in May.

Then, in the excitement of Labour's election victory in Britain, 13 countries were invited to come and resolve a single issue - whether US$78 million (HK$602 million) worth of Nazi gold deposited since 1945 in London and New York could be used for a Holocaust fund.

Britain wants many of the countries which have received money from the fund to hand it over to a new central fund for Holocaust victims. But it is not that easy. Some say they will contribute, others - like France and Holland - insist they will do it their own way.

In 1945 the Allies had seized about US$252 million in gold ingots plundered by the Nazis from Europe's central banks during the war. Those ingots were all that remained in Germany of the estimated US$661 million of gold then stolen by the Nazis (some US$12 billion in today's money).

Over the following 50 years Britain, France and the United States, in the Tripartite Gold Commission, divided the gold among those countries which had suffered the loss and by 1996 all but US$78 million of the recovered ingots had been distributed. There was even agreement then on how the final amount would be handed out.

But then, since the conference was first agreed upon, came fresh discoveries that not only did the gold ingots include metal plundered from central banks but also jewellery and gold fillings and other dental gold torn from the mouths of concentration camp victims.

It seemed immoral for the central banks to share out the remaining ingots while ignoring the plight of the surviving victims of the Holocaust. What was to have been a relatively simple conference to settle the final account with the 13 national participants quickly took on a different dimension and 41 nations were represented when the conference began at Lancaster House this week.

Mr Cook had perhaps hoped for a little kudos out of a tidy resolution of a wartime legacy; instead, he found a diplomatic nightmare.

The nightmare included not just gold but the whole examination of what happened to Jewish property across Europe during and following the war. It is said that nearly all the 41 participants, including Britain, have some dirt on their hands over how Jewish property rights were handled in the days after the war.

In Britain some survivors were, after 1945, denied their property by British banks. They were all Jews and at the same time nationals of former enemy countries whose property had been included in the general seizure of enemy property in Britain after the outbreak of war in 1939. Some of that property was used to repay British companies owed money by those former enemy countries.

But Britain, like the other allies, had at least endured enormous sacrifice to rid the world of Nazism. The same cannot be said of Switzerland which, as government policy, sought to retain the gold it had accrued from the Nazis after the war, thus transforming an only averagely wealthy state into one of Europe's richest.

The conference opened with a clash between the Swiss delegate Thomas Borer and Jewish leaders over a claim that Switzerland still owed billions of dollars in gold stolen by Nazi Germany. Mr Borer claimed such wide-sweeping demands would only jeopardise Switzerland's attempt to compensate Nazi victims and work out a fair solution to the gold question.

There are questions too. 'Normality' did not return to Europe in 1945 - the new status quo was the Cold War, the communist seizure of power across Eastern and Central Europe, and the consequent riding roughshod over individual property rights.

There are, for instance, claims by Jews for the restitution of property in France, Russia, the former Czechoslovakia and Poland. There was no shortage of skeletons in the cupboard for others either.

The Vatican, which has arguably come out of the conference with the worst image, was accused of receiving gold looted from gypsies in concentration camps as part of a campaign by the International Romani Union (IRU) for a fund to be set up for its dispossessed people.

The IRU told the second day of the conference that coins, jewellery and fillings worth about US$1.6 million at today's prices were taken from gypsy victims at one camp in Croatia alone. Croatian supporters of the Nazis, the Ustashe, killed 28,000 Romani and Sinti at the camp in Jasenovac. The Ustashe then handed over the gold to Croatian Catholic priests who gave at least some of it to the Vatican, IRU representative Donald Kenrick told the conference.

Up to 500,000 gypsies were killed by the Nazis. The Romanis believe they have become the Nazis' forgotten victims, their suffering overshadowed by the better-documented pain of the Jewish people at the hands of the Third Reich and its allies.

Mr Kenrick said gold worth about US$128 million at today's prices was taken from gypsy victims of the Holocaust, of whom 100,000 still survive, scattered around Europe. And as if to demonstrate the link through to today, Mr Kenrick said he wanted to see money from the fund used to set up a human rights programme in Eastern Europe where the IRU believes about 50 Romani people are murdered each year in racially-motivated attacks.

Quite separately, in a further apparent breakdown of the spirit of openness which the conference was intended to create, the World Jewish Congress (WJC) and the Croatian delegation became bogged down in a war of words over Croatia's own highly questionable record during the war.

In her address to the conference the Croatian delegation leader, Snyezana Bagic, while renouncing her nation's claim to any of the central gold in favour of individual victims, paid tribute to the resistance movement in her country.

'The Croatian people fought Nazi invaders on a massive scale and thus made a significant contribution to the victory of anti-fascist forces,' she said. That brought an immediate and angry response from WJC delegate Israel Singer, who accused the Croatians of failing to come to terms with their past.

Mr Cook opened the conference telling delegates 'we are here to look for compensation for a suffering that can never be expiated'.

The aim was to get to the truth and set the record straight. But records vary and historical legacies hardly seem to change.