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Digging for gold in the archives

NCR Staff

As worldwide efforts intensify to track assets looted by the Nazis during World War II, attention is increasingly turning to the extensive archives of the Vatican, which one U.S. government expert says may hold records critical to helping Nazi victims receive compensation for stolen property.

So far, however, researchers have received little help from church officials, who have refused to open any records generated after 1922.

In a potential softening of the Vatican’s position, representatives of the Holy See agreed to attend a conference in Washington Dec. 2-3, where delegates from 43 nations were set to discuss how wartime archives might be opened in the effort to compensate victims.

Richard Smith, deputy director of the conference, told NCR that the U.S. State Department has been working with the Vatican’s Secretariat of State on the archives issue. He said he could not comment on whether the Vatican’s attendance at the conference might portend a decision to open its World War II archives.

To date, Vatican officials have asserted that an internal review of World War II-era records indicates that the church had no role in plundering by the Germans or their allies. But Greg Bradsher, director of the Holocaust-era Assets Records Project for the U.S. government, said researchers are less interested in catching the Vatican in wrongdoing than in finding out what it knew about events across Europe during the war.

“The Vatican had representatives all over the world who would send reports back from Germany, from Sweden, from Spain, from wherever,” he said. “Those records would be important, not to show what the Vatican was doing necessarily, but to fill in gaps about what was going on in other countries,” said Bradsher, an official for the National Archives and Records Administration, in an interview with NCR.

The Vatican’s unwillingness to open its records has generated criticism from Jewish groups and advocates for other victims, who have stressed the urgency of settling accounts as the ranks of survivors dwindle with age.

Bradsher said there’s a strong moral argument for the Vatican to make its records available. He said that Stuart Eisenstadt, the State Department official who led a U.S. commission on assets looted by the Nazis, has remarked that “what we’re all about right now is turning history into justice.”

“You can’t have history without the records of the past, and those records are in archives. Unless you can get to that history, you can’t really find out what justice needs to be done,” Bradsher said.

Approximately 16 commissions are working in different countries to document Nazi plundering, Bradsher said.

America’s leading expert on the Vatican archives, meanwhile, sounded a note of caution about what researchers might hope to find. Francis Blouin, who recently edited the most comprehensive guide to the Vatican archives, said that large gaps exist in the Holy See’s financial documents.

“I’m not sure where all the financial records are,” said Blouin, a professor at the University of Michigan. “We didn’t see a lot of financial ledgers from the late 19th and early 20th century. There are lots of records from earlier eras, but we didn’t see much later. Maybe there’s another cache of records somewhere.”

Blouin said that even if the Vatican archives decided to make World War II-era records available, it would take “a long time” before researchers would actually get their hands on them.

“When we were at the Vatican, the staff was still trying to catch up with the releases John Paul had0 authorized, the stuff prior to 1922 -- going through it all, stamping it property of the archives, updating their inventories,” Blouin said. He said the Vatican archives does not have “a large staff, especially for the volume of material they have to deal with.”

Blouin also said that sometimes there are legitimate reasons for archives to remain secret. “You want policies that encourage people to save material,” he said.

During the war, Bradsher said, intelligence experts focused on the movement of troops and fleets. Afterwards they turned to the movement of people, especially war criminals and refugees. The Cold War froze cooperation among the former allies, and it has only been since 1989, Bradsher said, that the question of what happened to looted assets could be re-opened.

The first round of questions centered on Swiss bank accounts to which Holocaust survivors might have claims. Research has since broadened to include so-called “tainted” gold, looted art, unpaid insurance benefits and even compensation for slave labor.

When the Nazis came to power in a country, Bradsher said, they would seize its treasury, especially its gold. They would also take the valuables of anyone sent to a concentration camp, down to their jewelry and the gold fillings in their teeth.

These assets had to be converted to liquid currency. “Most countries wouldn’t accept German marks. They didn’t know how good they were going to be. So they preferred to deal in Swiss Francs or some other currency,” Bradsher said.

The Nazis would use plundered gold and valuables to obtain currency from neutral countries -- primarily Sweden, Portugal, Spain, Turkey and Switzerland. “A lot of these countries became money launderers,” Bradsher said.

Coming to terms with this reality has been painful, Bradsher said, especially for the Swiss. “There was a myth the Swiss had always lived by -- that the Germans never invaded Switzerland because [Switzerland] had this strong army,” Bradsher said.

“Well, the reason the Germans didn’t invade Switzerland was because they needed someplace they could launder their money.”

The insurance issue emerged just this year, Bradsher said, when researchers learned that thousands of property and personal insurance policies had been sold to Jews during the 1930s, and many benefits had never been paid.

Slave labor is another new issue. A New York law firm has filed class-action suits against international giants such as Volkswagen, Mercedes-Benz and Ford for using slave labor at plants in Nazi-occupied Europe. Historians speculate more than 7 million people were forced to work by the Nazis and their allies.

In all of these areas, Bradsher said, researchers are interested in what the Vatican knew.

The issue of Nazi plundering is sensitive for the Vatican, in light of scattered intelligence reports linking it to money looted by the fascist Ustasha regime in Croatia (see related article). The Vatican has denied any wrongdoing.

Bradsher said that answer doesn’t address the interests of those seeking justice for Nazi victims. “You may or may not find stuff about someone in the Vatican doing something that would be perceived today as not correct, but I’m sure you’ll find a gold mine in the other materials,” he said.

“Unless they’re open how would you know what the Vatican knew?”

National Catholic Reporter, December 4, 1998