Only a fraction of Jewish property taken by Nazis returned, study shows

Western European governments paid restitution for a 1/5 of stolen property, while Eastern European countries paid almost nothing at all.

nazi stolen art 298.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
nazi stolen art 298.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Only one-fifth of the property that was stolen from Europe's Jews by the Nazis and their collaborators has ever been returned, leaving at least US$115 billion in assets still missing, according to a new study. Many Western European governments paid restitution for only a fraction of the stolen real estate, investments, businesses and household items, while Eastern European countries under Soviet control paid almost nothing at all, according to the study. Even the highly publicized campaigns over the past decade for a new wave of compensation barely made a dent in the problem, said the study, compiled by economist Sidney Zabludoff, a former CIA and U.S. Treasury official. Elan Steinberg, a former executive director of World Jewish Congress who helped spearhead the 1990s push for Holocaust restitution, said he was "shocked, but not surprised" by the study's figures and called for a rapid resolution to the problem for the benefit of destitute, elderly Holocaust survivors. "This is an extraordinary finding and what makes it most tragic is that despite the efforts at restitution, we have so many Holocaust survivors at the end of their days ... who are not being taken care of," he said. Zabludoff's study showed that before the Holocaust, Jews owned property in Europe that was worth between US$10 billion and US$15 billion at the time. Most of that was never repaid, translating into a missing US$115 billion to US$175 billion in current prices, the study said. An Israeli government report released two years ago estimated material damages to the Jewish people from the Holocaust at US$240 billion to US$330 billion. That report factored in lost income, as well as unpaid wages from forced Jewish labor, which Zabludoff did not include in his study. The new study is to appear in the April issue of the Jewish Political Studies Review, a journal published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, an Israeli think tank. It documents a 60-year history of neglect in efforts to obtain restitution for Holocaust victims, despite laws passed in many European countries during and after World War II mandating compensation, Zabludoff said. Most of the assets eventually restored to survivors and Jewish organizations - about 15 percent of the total taken - were recovered in the years immediately following the war, he said. A major obstacle to restitution was the Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, where the majority of Jewish property had been held before the war, he said. Recovery rates were also hurt by a tremendous devaluation in the German currency after the war that left Jews with compensation for little more than 10 percent of their stolen property, the study said. Other Western European governments paid between half and two-thirds of what they owed, it said. Efforts were further hampered by the difficulty in locating assets, since most of the property owners were killed and their heirs often did not know the details of their holdings, the study said. The issue of restitution faded in the 1970s, but rose again in the 1990s, most famously when Swiss banks came under criticism from Holocaust survivors for allegedly stealing, concealing or sending to the Nazis millions of dollars worth of Jewish holdings. The banks agreed in 1998 to pay US$1.25 billion on dormant accounts held by Jewish Holocaust victims. But Zabludoff found that those later efforts resulted in the return of only an additional 3 percent of the missing wealth before attention again dissipated. "It became a popular issue in the mid '90s, but these issues tend to run their course after a while. Courts ruled against it. Public interest waned," he said in a telephone interview with AP. "Because of that, it never really got the traction to make a significant contribution to returning assets." There is little chance of a new influx of restitution because Western European governments feel they already did their share, Eastern European governments feel they are too poor, Jewish groups are too splintered to mount a widescale campaign and the U.S. and Israeli governments are too preoccupied with other issues, the study said. Mark Stern, general counsel of the American Jewish Congress, hoped the huge amounts cited in the study might inspire some families to pursue compensation. "I think this will give a renewed impetus to efforts to force governments to account (for stolen property) in a more systematic way than they have until now," he said. Abraham Foxman, director of the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, said that the Jewish community will never be fully compensated for the stolen property. "There will never be justice, only a small measure of justice," he said.