Loot Restitution: 45 Nations to Hunt for Nazi Loot from Jews

Article excerpt

Miles Lerman was a young man in Eastern Europe when the Nazis began their extermination campaign to eliminate Europe's Jews. But he survived the death camps, fought as a partisan in the Ukraine and came to the United States.

"I lost most of my family in Belzec death camp - 600,000 Jews were annihilated at Belzec using diesel trucks' carbon monoxide gas," said Mr. Lerman in an interview.

His wife survived Auschwitz, the most infamous of the Nazi death camps.

Mr. Lerman recovered from his losses and built a new life, along with over 100,000 other Holocaust survivors in the United States. Eventually, he was appointed by President Clinton to chair the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council, which oversees the Holocaust Museum in the District.

This week, the museum and the State Department will revive memories of the killings that took Mr. Lerman's family and millions of others.

Tomorrow, delegations from 45 countries and 13 nongovernmental organizations meet at the State Department to launch a search for looted art, life insurance and community property stolen during the systematic extermination of Jews during the World War II-era Holocaust.

The four-day conference will include a one-day session at the Holocaust Memorial Museum that will focus on how to educate children and adults about the genocide - to remember those who died in efforts to ensure it does not happen again.

LAST CHANCE

The Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets aims to "complete the great unfinished business of the 20th century," said Stuart Eizenstat, undersecretary of state for economic affairs who also directs U.S. policy on the issue.

"This is the last chance to deal with it while the survivors are still alive," he said in an interview.

"This conference, we believe, is of great historic significance," Mr. Lerman said. "It is the first time countries all over Europe are taking a hard look at themselves. Some have taken the initiative on their own to come forward and have offered compensation for their involvement."

The Nazis, beginning in 1933 in Germany, looted an estimated $9 billion to $14 billion in art and other assets from Jews in 20 countries or regions they occupied. The current value of the assets is estimated at $90 billion to $140 billion.

Immediately after World War II in 1945, the victorious Allies gave priority to locating and returning gold stolen by the Nazis from the central banks of conquered nations to its original owners.

A Tripartite Commission was set up for that purpose. It established a modern legal precedent to locate and return wealth stolen in wars of aggression.

But major diplomatic support for efforts to restore the wealth that was stolen from millions of individuals targeted for slaughter has only begun in the last two or three years. The effort has been driven largely by the United States.

A London conference on Holocaust assets in December focused on tracing gold looted from victims. It concluded that 337 tons of the gold was recovered by the Allies after the war. Of that, 329 tons went to the central banks of nine Central European countries.

CONFERENCE WON'T SET POLICY

All of those nations have agreed to donate the remaining few tons to a fund for survivors, to which the United States will add $25 million, said Mr. Eizenstat.

The Washington conference beginning tomorrow will neither make policy nor aim to set policy or legal precedents. But U.S. legal experts said the organizers hope that it will establish moral and procedural precedents that victims of other attempted genocides will be able to follow in efforts to regain looted property.

The latest conference follows two State Department reports that criticized Swiss cooperation with the Nazis during World War II.

A report issued in May 1997 concluded that Switzerland knowingly accepted tons of Nazi gold looted from Nazi-overrun countries and Jewish Holocaust victims during World War II and kept most of it. …