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Europe: Stolen Jewish Gold Continues To Tarnish Reputations

  • Jeremy Bransten

Prague, 28 January 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Switzerland, Sweden, Portugal. The trail of looted wartime Jewish assets has been crossing sensitive territory in recent weeks. Mounting evidence that Europe's neutral countries actively funded Nazi Germany's World War II effort while receiving payment in stolen Jewish gold has tarnished reputations and re-opened the history books.

The continuing revelations are prompting other countries who were occupied by the Nazis -- among them France, Holland, Poland and Norway -- to launch their own investigations to trace missing Jewish property. In the latest case, France's Prime Minister Alain Juppe last Saturday announced the formation of a committee to identify and find property stolen from Jewish families during World War II. A recently-published report by the French Audit Office found that close to 2,000 works of art taken from Jewish collectors now hang in France's top museums. The confiscated property is also believed to include hundreds of apartments in Paris alone.

The extent to which France willingly collaborated with the Nazi regime has been more openly debated in recent years. But France, like Holland, Poland, and Norway were under direct Nazi administration. Officially-neutral Switzerland, Sweden and Portugal were not. And the emerging evidence that their governments directly stoked the Nazi war machine while cashing in on the Jewish Holocaust has caused the greatest damage.

According to Allied and German records only recently-publicized, close to 100 tons of Nazi gold ended up in Portugal during the war. Lisbon sold the Nazis tungsten, insulin, diamonds and other goods and reaped the rewards. The more the conflict raged, the more commerce picked up. As late as 1944, couriers were secretely running large gold shipments from Germany to the Portuguese capital.

Newly-uncovered archives show neutral Sweden received over 34 tons of gold from wartime Germany. That would be worth around $430 million today. In return, Sweden provided the Nazis with 35 million tons of desperately-needed iron ore in addition to hundreds of freight cars.

Switzerland, which was the initial target of investigations by the U.S. Congress, journalists and Jewish organizations, has been the most politically shaken by the allegations. Allied and German documents indicate Switzerland was the cornerstone in the Nazis' gold-for-goods operation. Hundreds of millions of dollars worth of stolen Jewish gold and artwork passed through the country. The booty was laundered through the principal banks, before being stashed away or shipped on to third destinations to pay for war supplies.

At the end of the war, the Allies estimated that Switzerland possessed an astounding 400 tons of gold. Only 10 percent was ever handed over for reparations. Jewish groups now charge Switzerland with harboring $7 billion in stolen assets. Swiss banks say they have so far uncovered $32 million in what they describe as "dormant accounts," that is to say accounts which most likely belonged to Jews murdered by the Nazis.

The Swiss government has said it is continuing its search. But beneath the surface, the allegations have uncovered raw wounds. The Swiss ambassador to the United States, Carlo Jagmetti, resigned on Monday after a confidential document he wrote advocating "war" against Jewish groups and other critics, was leaked to the press. Economics Minister and former President Jean-Pascal Delamuraz, was forced to apologize after remarks last month in which he said Jewish groups were "blackmailing" the country. There is now increasing pressure on Delamuraz to leave the government.

The end of the Cold War and the passing of a political generation is forcing many European countries to confront some ugly realities. While the war's losers were compelled to examine their history in detail, the victors were not. Neither were those who pretended to have remained on the sidelines. As "The London Times" counseled in an editorial today, "The best reparation is unvarnished truth."