The possible discovery of a Nazi train filled with Holocaust- era plunder is only a drop in the bucket compared to the vast amounts of art, money and jewels still missing 70 years after the end of the war, Israel historian Dr. Gideon Greif told The Jerusalem Post on Sunday.
A Holocaust specialist, Greif conducts research at the Shem Olam Institute.
Polish authorities last week all but confirmed the discovery of the train, which has long been believed to contain millions of dollars worth of Nazi loot. On Friday, Polish Deputy Culture Minister Piotr Zuchowski announced he has seen a ground-penetrating radar image indicating that the train, which two unidentified individuals claimed to locate earlier this month, likely exists.
The train is believed to be one that reportedly disappeared in 1945 loaded with gold, gems, art and guns bound for Berlin, one of several trains the Nazis used in an attempt to save their war plunder from the advancing Allies. According to local lore, the train vanished after entering a network of tunnels under the Owl Mountains.
Almost immediately the World Jewish Congress issued a statement calling on Poland to restitute any stolen property discovered aboard the train.
“To the extent that any items now being discovered in Poland may have been stolen from Jews before they were sent to death, concentration or forced labor camps, it is essential that every measure is taken to return the property to its rightful owners or to their heirs. We very much hope that the Polish authorities will take the appropriate action in that respect,” WJC CEO Robert Singer said Friday.
“If no such survivors or heirs can be found, any gold or other property that is found to have belonged to Jewish families or businesses must now inure to the benefit of Polish Jewish survivors who unfortunately have never been adequately compensated by Poland for the unspeakable suffering they endured and their catastrophic economic losses in the Holocaust.”
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Speaking to the Post, Greif said the Germans were not only the “biggest murderers” but the “biggest thieves,” adding that the train should be seen as “a part of this whole context of endless incessant national robbery [that] the leadership of Nazi Germany was obsessively involved in.”
He said he was almost one hundred percent positive that the train was carrying plunder rather than ammunition and that by hiding it in an underground tunnel, the Nazis were engaged in a “very desperate attempt to save all this looted property at the last minute.”
“It’s a part of the big issue of the wealth that Nazi Germany looted and which is in still in hands which it shouldn’t be in,” he continued, calling the train a good example of the vast amounts of property, including art, still waiting to be returned to their rightful owners.
“It’s billions of billions of billions,” he said. “It’s beyond any imagination.”
Last year, the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany and the World Jewish Restitution Organization, the two most prominent Jewish organizations dedicated to restitution issues, issued a joint statement asserting that little progress has been made on issues relating to looted art.
“15 years after the first international agreement regarding restitution of Nazi-era looted art, most countries have made little progress toward returning stolen cultural items to their rightful owners,” the two groups asserted.
Last year, the issue of looted art gained media traction due to the discovery of a large collection of looted works in the home of elderly German recluse Cornelius Gurlitt. Authorities stumbled upon his trove of paintings and drawings by the likes of Chagall, Toulouse-Lautrec and Picasso in 2012 after a routine check on a train from Switzerland turned up wads of cash, triggering a tax inquiry.
The 2014 movie The Monuments Men brought the issue further into the mainstream consciousness, telling the story of Nazi Germany’s massive and systematic looting of Europe’s cultural patrimony during the war years.
Meanwhile, both American and British lawmakers have been pushing Poland to increase its own restitution efforts.
Poland’s fiscal policies on issues stemming from the Holocaust have come under fire from Jewish groups concerned with caring for survivors and obtaining restitution for lost property.
Within the past week, both the World Jewish Restitution Organization and an Israeli umbrella organization for survivors groups panned various Polish efforts to deal with the financial aspects of the country’s legacy as the primary locale in which the Nazis carried out their genocide.
On Tuesday, Colette Avital, the chairwoman of the Center of Organizations of Holocaust Survivors in Israel, told attendees at a survivors’ conference at the Kfar Maccabiah Hotel in Ramat Gan that the criteria for proving eligibility for pension payments from the Polish government for survivors living in Israel were onerous and unnecessarily complicated.
Poland recently widened the pool of those eligible for the monthly payments, finally including expatriate survivors who were citizens during the war and either fought against the Germans or were incarcerated in ghettos or camps on Polish soil.
While survivors welcomed the move, its implementation leaves something to be desired, Avital told Post on Wednesday.
“The documents that you were in a camp or ghetto are not necessarily easy to get,” she said, saying elderly survivors with limited mobility would have to go to archives, such as Yad Vashem’s in Jerusalem to obtain the necessary papers.
Once such proof is obtained, it has to be translated into Polish and notarized, both of which entail considerable effort and expense for those with limited means and mobility.
Also, many survivors who were children in Poland have difficulty with the multi-page Polish language forms and anyone who changed his name after immigrating to Israel has to present proof of his original name as well, she said.
Once the necessary proofs are submitted to Warsaw, another round of paperwork is sent back here, entailing further efforts to penetrate Polish bureaucratic jargon.
“I think it is excessive,” Avital complained, recalling suggesting Poland find an “easier way.”
Israel already certified people as Holocaust survivors as part of its own welfare system and the State of Israel “was ready to make life easier and give access to their files and give affidavits” to the Poles, she said. But “they rejected this,” she continued.
Between 10,000 and 15,000 eligible survivors live in Israel, according to Ma’ariv.
According to the Polish government, the new regulations put Israelis eligible for pensions on equal footing with their counterparts living in Poland.
Until April, beneficiaries living in Israel had to have a bank account in Poland or authorize someone there to receive payments on their behalf.
Last week, the World Jewish Restitution Organization heavily criticized Warsaw and called on newly sworn-in President Andrzej Duda not to sign legislation that “would set a sixmonth deadline for rightful owners or their heirs to participate in administrative proceedings for claims filed decades ago... and would not provide for sufficient notice.
“In addition, the law would end the practice of appointing a trustee to represent an heir who has not been identified, and would strip away an owner’s right to seek the return of large categories of properties, including those in public use.
The legislation would lead to the dismissal of claims unless all the owners of the property participate in the administrative proceeding within the six-month window,” the restitution body stated.
While Poland has returned communal property, it has not handled the issue of personal property confiscated by the Nazis and later nationalized by the Soviets well at all, according to advocates.
Last month, 42 US congressmen sent Secretary of State John Kerry a bipartisan letter urging him to address this issue.
“Beyond the physical and emotional trauma they suffered 70 years ago, and the impact that trauma continues to have on their lives, many Holocaust survivors in the United States and around the world live in poverty while knowing the property that was stolen from them and their family remains in the hands of governments and private owners who have no rightful claim,” the legislators wrote.
JTA contributed to this report.
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