World War II is generally viewed as the glorious victory of good over evil. Hitler’s Nazi Germany was defeated and the Jews were liberated from the concentration camps. But the reality is not so comforting. The conflict provided the opportunity to plunder the Jews and strip them of all that they owned.

The defeat of Nazi Germany and the horrific nature of the Holocaust has overshadowed the theft of property and large-scale confiscation of Jewish assets. Bank accounts, works of art, houses and businesses were seized by the Germans as they occupied country after country. Local people, too, were quick to enrich themselves as the Jews disappeared to the death camps. It was assumed they would not be returning to reclaim their property.

The Nazis determined to eliminate the Jews from all aspects of German life by a process they called ‘Aryanization’: the transfer of Jewish property, possessions and businesses to Germans when Jews were forced from their homes and, in most cases, finally transported to concentration camps. The procedure involved the assignment of Jewish assets to the German Government, and their subsequent sale at discount prices to ordinary German citizens.1

As the Jews were dragged away to their death, many otherwise ordinary people were ready to loot what was left behind.2 This activity extended well beyond the defeat of Nazi Germany and the end of World War II. Jews who had been stripped of their assets by the Nazis now found themselves deprived of their property when they returned to their home country. This multiplied their suffering. Many lost their lives in the death camps, while those Jews who survived, lost their families and all their possessions.

Countries liberated by the Allies retained looted assets and wealth that had been left behind by the retreating Germans. Meanwhile throughout Eastern Europe, a second round of confiscations took place as communist governments took control. Community and personal property that once belonged to the Jews was not restored to them when the war was over. Instead, many countries simply enriched themselves at the expense of the Jews.3

Even assets entrusted to business partners and neighbours in the hope that they could be reclaimed following the war were often not restored to Jews. Many returned to find strangers living in their homes, using their household and personal items, even wearing their clothes—the Jews were not welcomed back.4 Others came back “to their home towns to find themselves the sole survivors of the Jewish community, living ghosts returned from the grave to reclaim property which had long since been shared out”.5

Switzerland benefitted from Jewish wealth that flowed into its banks for safekeeping. After the war, many Swiss banks refused claims of heirs of Holocaust victims, citing lack of proof of identity and, in some cases, even requesting a death certificate. As one survivor told the bankers, “No one got a death certificate in Auschwitz”.6

Neutral countries also benefitted from trade with both sides of the conflict. It is now known that neutral countries, especially Switzerland, extended the war by at least two years because they continued to supply Germany with vital raw materials and loans.7

Only in recent decades has close attention been paid to the question of what happened to the assets and property of Jews who perished in the Holocaust. It may have been assumed that their surviving heirs were able to claim their assets. In fact, very few Holocaust survivors have received their inheritance until recent years, and then only at a fraction of its true value.

With the opening of archives from World War II and the collapse of communism in Russia and Eastern Europe in 1991, documents have emerged that detail what happened to Jewish assets in Nazi occupied countries.8 These issues had gained little attention following World War II as the Cold War and threat of Communism dominated internatonal politics. The United States, which emerged as the most powerful western nation, was more intent on rebuilding Europe and containing Russia and Communism than ensuring that a just accounting of Jewish assets was achieved.

Survivors of the Holocaust were often too traumatised by their experience to pursue their rightful claims to property. Many were preoccupied with the search for surviving family.

In June 2009, representatives of 46 countries met at the invitation of the Prime Minister of the Czech Republic in Terezin to discuss the welfare of Holocaust survivors and the question of restitution of Jewish assets. Discussion covered immovable property, cemeteries, Nazi looted art and Jewish cultural property. The countries that attended issued the Terezin Declaration on Holocaust Era Assets and Related Issues, which stated that the participating states would “urge that every effort be made to rectify the consequences of wrongful property seizures, such as confiscations, forced sales and sales under duress of property”.9

However, a study commissioned by the European Shoah Legacy Institute10, released in 2017, stated that: “Over seventy years after the Holocaust, a substantial amount of immovable property confiscated from European Jews remains unrestituted”. The study acknowledged that progress had been made by a number of countries which endorsed the Terezin Declaration, but in the post-Communist countries of Eastern Europe, in particular Poland, little had been done to restore property plundered and stolen from Jews during the Holocaust.11 And after 70 years, many of the survivors, who would have benefited from the restitution of assets, are now dead.

Though Israel’s sufferings have been great and terrible, yet Yahweh remembers His people and will restore them to favour again. In that day, “my people shall be satisfied with my goodness, saith Yahweh” ( Jer 31:14).

Reference

1 Gotz Aly, Hitler’s beneficiaries: plunder, racial war, and the Nazi welfare state, New York: Metropolitan Books, 2006, p. [183]-184.

2 Richard Z. Chesnoff, Pack of thieves: how Hitler and Europe plundered the Jews and committed the greatest theft in history,

London: Phoenix, 2001, p. 2

3 Richard Z. Chesno , p. 1.

 

4 Richard Z. Chesno , p. 53-54, 98-99, 179-180.

 

5  Richard Crossman, Palestine mission: a personal record, New York: Harper & Brothers, 1947, p. 78-79.

 

6  Richard Z. Chesno , p. 210.

 

7  Richard Z. Chesno , p. 3.

 

8  Richard Z. Chesno , p. 259.

 

9  Online at http://www.eu2009.cz/en/news-and-documents/news/terezin-declaration-26304/

 

10  The Holocaust (Shoah) immovable property restitution study. Online at http://shoahlegacy.org/property-issues/immovable-property/immovable-property-study-2014-2017

11 “Holocaust restitution report fails reports by Poland, Bosnia”, in The Times of Israel, 24 April 2017. Online at https://www.timesofisrael.com/holocaust-restitution-report-fails-efforts-by-poland-bosnia/