Op-Ed: 80% of Stolen Holocaust Assets Were Never Returned
“Progress in post-war restitution of stolen Jewish Holocaust assets was extremely slow and lasted until the early 1970s. During this period, emphasis shifted from returning property in occupied countries to pressuring a relatively economically sound Germany to pay more for looting carried out by the Nazis. At most, 15 percent of Jewish assets confiscated from 1934 to 1945 were returned in the first round of restitution to former owners, their heirs and Jewish organizations representing heirless claimants.
“A much-publicized additional restitution effort was made after the mid-1990s. Several international conferences attempted to deal with the unpaid obligations but little was accomplished. The latest was in Prague in 2009. Although delegates made heart-wrenching speeches and made calls for restitution, no effective means was established to return or compensate for the stolen assets.”
Sidney Zabludoff is an economist who worked for the White House, CIA and Treasury Department for more than thirty years. Upon retirement in 1995, he focused mainly on issues related to the restitution of Jewish assets stolen during the Holocaust era.
“The most comprehensive arrangements of the second round were payments for dormant Swiss bank accounts and to the 2,100 Jews who had lived in Norway before the Holocaust. In both cases, the assets involved were a very small part of stolen Jewish holdings. At the same time, the much-publicized effort to repay life insurance claims by the International Commission of Holocaust Era Claims (ICHEIC), resulted in only about 3 percent being repaid.
“In the end, less than 5 percent of Jewish Holocaust assets were returned since the mid-1990s. Thus all together, more than 80 percent of the value of Jewish assets stolen by the Nazis and their collaborators remains unpaid. This amounts to at least $180 billion in 2013 prices.
“We know the most about developments in Germany. By 1954, restitution under Allied laws was essentially completed. A substantial part of the payments thereafter until 1997, were made under the 1957 BRÜG law which provided compensation for movable property stolen by the Nazis, which the claimant could identify but could no longer locate. This mainly involved household goods, bank accounts, jewelry and securities. They were made to nearly 750,000 claimants who owned assets throughout Europe.
“Under this law, about a quarter of the restitution payments were made to Jews who had lived in Germany in the late 1930s. An unknown but significant share of the payments – perhaps one quarter – was paid to Jews living outside of Germany who had escaped during the 1930s. Another half was paid to Jews in occupied countries of Europe.
“All in all, not more than about 12 percent of the pre-war value of Jewish assets confiscated in Germany was returned. The figure is so low due to the post-war devaluation of German currency. For Austria about a third of the total looted was returned, while for the remainder of the Western European countries, it was between 40% and 60%. In Eastern Europe, it appears unlikely that more than 5 percent of Jewish property was restored.
“The low overall percentage of restituted Jewish Holocaust assets can be attributed to two major issues. In Germany – which accounted for about 25% of all stolen Jewish assets – there were low valuations due to currency reforms. In Eastern Europe – which represented about 60% of seized Jewish property – there was the long period of communist rule.”
Looking back on the entire restitution process Zabludoff remarks: “The landmark 1907 Hague Convention on international warfare had stipulated that private property cannot be confiscated, pillage is forbidden and that institutions dedicated to religion, charity and education, the arts and sciences, should be treated as private property.
“Soon after regaining their independence, all occupied countries put restitution regulations in place. The Allies agreed at the 1945 Paris Conference that the Nazi war on the Jews made them a special group entitled to compensation. As such, individual Jews had the right to demand payment of lost property and other damages from Germany.
“Holocaust restitution however, remained a low-priority issue following World War II because of national interests.
"Additionally, it became highly complicated, as so many Jews and their heirs had died.
"One might summarize the poor outcome during both periods of restitution by saying that there was the failure to make a unique, comprehensive and adequate effort to deal with an event unequaled in the annals of modern history—the extermination of more than two-thirds of continental European Jewry and the confiscation of nearly all of its assets.
“The need for unique solutions was strongly emphasized by Nahum Goldmann, Chairman of the World Jewish Congress, in his first meeting with Chancellor Konrad Adenauer to propose a broad settlement on restitution. He stated, ‘I knew I was asking for something unusual, something that by conventional standards might be considered incorrect. But this is a unique case...I can expect you to override conventional regulations.’”