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Jewish World Review Nov. 4, 1999 / 23 Mar-Cheshvan, 5760

Richard Chesnoff

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The Netherlands:
Loot Thy Neighbor

(Page 4)

An excerpt from the highly acclaimed new book"Pack of Thieves"

Historian Michman insists that even when there were clear records, "a determined struggle had to be waged by the Jews to gain recognition of their claims to the property that had been stolen from them.'' This proved especially true with money that had been taken by the Liro. At first the government proposed reimbursing surviving holders of Liro accounts at a rate of 70 percent of whatever was found in the bank's coffers at the war's end. There was a public outcry and a vehement denunciation of this shortchanging of the Dutch Jews. Eventually the government relented, finally agreeing to refund at 90 percent. "But,'' points out Lipchits with a sardonic smile, "it was 90 percent of what was left in the Liro accounts - not 90 percent of what had been taken from the Jewish depositors!''

By the end of 1949, Dutch auditors had compiled a list of some 70,000 Liro accounts. (It was not a complete list; some records had been destroyed by German officials and Liro employees when it became clear the Nazis were losing the war.) There were applicants for the return of only 23,000 accounts; all the other Liro depositors and their immediate heirs had apparently perished in the Holocaust.

Victims whose property and belongings had been stolen faced particular difficulties. According to Van Schie, even when the Committee for Property Return determined that property "sales'' had been coerced, ownership was not automatically restored to claimants. This was especially true in cases where third parties claimed they had made a "bona fide,'' good-faith purchase of purloined objects, land, and buildings.

The same held true for the enormous wealth of stolen stocks and securities that had flooded the Amsterdam stock exchange in 1942. Initially the postwar Dutch government ruled that in order to receive compensation from the first rank of stock and bond purchasers, claimants would have to prove that purchasers had known they were buying stolen goods, a difficult task at best. When the Dutch Supreme Court overruled that decision, the otherwise staid Dutch Beurs responded first with outrage, then with panic, and went out on strike - the only time that had ever happened in its history.

Fearing major bankruptcies of stockbroking houses and/or of those firms and individuals who'd illegally purchased stolen stocks, the Dutch government eventually agreed to take the pressure off the Beurs (and the illegal stockholders) and in 1953 began to compensate the original Jewish owners of the stocks with a government payment of 90 percent original worth. The only condition: Ownership claims would be abandoned.

It worked out well for everyone except the Jews. Van Schie has estimated that while the claimants were paid 41 million guilders (about $150 million today), the stolen securities were valued at 8.5 times that amount in 1953. Furthermore, any securities that had been neither sold nor claimed after the war were simply absorbed into the Dutch state treasury, as were other heirless Jewish properties.

Some voices in the Jewish community objected that the arrangement was less than equitable. Besides, they said, heirless property should benefit the remnant community, not the government that failed to protect its Jewish citizens. Nonetheless, the governing boards of Dutch Jews meekly went along with the government's proposals, then remained silent. "It was the end of the war,'' recalled the late notary public Jacob Van Hasselt, who had been involved in postwar discussions with the government as part of a delegation of Dutch-Jewish survivors. "Most people thought it was better not to make waves.''

In 1985, a new, bolder generation of Jewish community leaders screwed up enough courage to ask the government to reopen the issue and transfer to the community another 4.5 million guilders of heirless property, only part of the treasure. "They arrived at the figure this way,'' says historian Lipchits, wetting his index finger and raising it to the wind. The Dutch government, not pleased at this turn of events, responded as though it were bargaining in a prewar Amsterdam street market; it countered with an offer of less than half: 2 million guilders. They subsequently added an additional 100,000 guilders "to make it easily divisible by three.'' The Dutch-Jewish Community Council agreed to the offer. One third of the funds was divided among the various Jewish communities throughout Holland, one third went to Holland's Jewish Welfare Association, and the final third went to Amsterdam's Joods Historisch Museum - the Jewish Historical Museum - then planning to build an impressive new building on the site of three old and unused Amsterdam synagogues.

After that, the issue of heirless Jewish property dropped out of sight, save for scattered requests from individuals. The 1996 opening of investigations into the fate of Holocaust assets in Switzerland triggered new interest in the Netherlands, and several of the younger and more prominent members of the Dutch-Jewish community, such as economist Victor Halberstadt, now an adviser to Queen Beatrix, and Tom de Swaan, managing director of the Dutch Central Bank, urged the Dutch government to launch its own investigations before there was a public outcry to do so.

If the Dutch government needed any more incentive, it arrived when documents came to light indicating that in 1968, a group of Dutch finance-ministry employees charged with the custodial care of unclaimed Nazi spoils had auctioned off - among themselves and at sweetheart prices - jewelry belonging to Dutch Jews who'd never returned. Then, in 1997, an Amsterdam resident discovered a cache of long-hidden Liro file cards in an upper floor of a house on the Keizersgracht Canal. The building, it transpired, had been used in postwar years as an archival storage room for the Ministry of Finance. The finder went to both the Ministry of Finance and the nearby War Documentation Center with his find. But officials seemed uninterested in his discovery. Frustrated, he contacted two young journalists at the freewheeling Dutch weekly the Groene Amsterdammer. The two, Joeri Boom and Sander Pleij, quickly realized that they had a historic bombshell in their hands. The yellowing cards contained the names of "depositors'' and specified the jewels and other personal property that they'd turned over to Liro. The cards also indicated something else: Much of the property was still unaccounted for.

In 1997, four government commissions were established to investigate Liro claims, looted gold, missing art, stolen insurance policies, and other financial matters stemming from the war --- including the poor treatment of Dutch citizens repatriated from Japanese prison camps. The commissions would be headed by some of the Netherlands' leading civil servants and public figures, who as of this writing are still preparing final reports.

But it was left to the World Jewish Congress to produce the first lengthy and most scathing condemnation of the wartime and postwar behavior of the Dutch. Prepared by Israeli economic-affairs editor/journalist Itamar Levine and published in 1998, the report proved especially harsh in dealing with the fate of the Liro accounts. Using the Van Schie report as his basis, Levine concluded that "the whole process seems somewhat incomprehensible. Let us recall the figures: After the war, Liro located 70,000 accounts, of which 45,000 (65 percent) were heirless. Considering the scale of the Shoah in the Netherlands, this is a reasonable calculation. Assuming that the investigations were very efficient, and Liro clerks managed to identify some 12,000 heirs so that the percentage of heirs fell to 50 percent, this is still a feasible rate. But how is it possible,'' asks Levine, "that the value of the remaining accounts fell by 80 percent? Is it feasible that the bank managed to locate only the heirs of larger accounts? And what became of the securities which were not sold and were left heirless?''

Gerard Aalders belittles claims that vast amounts of stolen Jewish money remain in Dutch government coffers or in Dutch banks. Such claims, he says, "are nonsense.'' But Professor Isaac Lipchits, and others, are convinced they do and that they were absorbed by the Dutch state, which invoked its own law: Heirless property belongs to the state. Dutch Jews who had not enjoyed their nation's protection during wartime were now considered full citizens in every respect.

Unfortunately, in preparing the Levine report, the WJC made no real effort to contact either most leaders of the Dutch-Jewish community or members of the Dutch investigating commissions including its prominent Jewish members, like Halberstadt and de Swaan. This outraged many in the community.

Yet there seems little indication that even if the WJC had tried to make contact, there would have been much cooperation from Dutch Jews. The community, which has grown to 30,000, has become fiercely independent, and many of its members are still bitter over what they felt was lack of concern by American Jews for their postwar plight. "We just don't need them,'' said educator Henri Markens, who also serves as chairman of the Coordinating Committee of the Dutch-Jewish Community Council. "We have a government that's eager to help, and a community that wants to get at the truth.'' Parliament member Judith C.E. Belinfante was blunter: "I don't remember the World Jewish Congress anywhere in sight when we came home from the camps in 1945.''

Yet as fiery as this debate became, few battles are proving more emotional than and as complicated as the struggle over stolen Dutch art. It continues unresolved to this day. More than 20,000 art objects taken from the Netherlands by the Germans were recovered in the aftermath of the war and turned over to the Dutch authorities (thousands of others, including at least 10,000 paintings, have never been found). Under the auspices of a special commission called The Netherlands Art Property Foundation (SNK), most of the recovered art was returned to its original owners or to the institutions from which it was stolen. But to this day, some 3,000 works - paintings, sculptures, and antique furniture - remain "under custodianship'' and form part of the state-owned Netherlands Art Property Collection, or "NK Collection.''

Today's search for stolen assets has triggered intense new interest in their true ownership. In some cases, heirs have recently come forward demanding the return of works of art family members legally sold to German buyers, albeit for wartime bargain prices dictated by the pressures of occupation, if not outright coercion. "We have lots of claims from people who sold art at the time,'' says Rick Voss, who heads the NK and sits on the official Dutch committee dealing with the art problems. Voss's response to such claimants is unequivocal. "We tell them you can keep the money,'' he says, "but we will keep the paintings.''

This is particularly true in the case of great-master paintings that once belonged to Jacques Goudstikker, Amsterdam's premier prewar Jewish art dealer. Goudstikker himself had already fled Amsterdam in May 1940 and died in a mysterious accident aboard the ship on which he was sailing to England. His wife and son went to New York, leaving his aged mother, Emmy Sellisberg, and two employees to deal with the Nazis - among them Reichsmarschall Hermann Goring, who made an early trip to the Goudstikkers' canalside gallery to make his choices.

In the end, the Goudstikker shareholders' board, which included Mrs. Sellisberg, voluntarily "sold'' the collection to Goring for DG2 million. Goudstikker's mother became one of the few Dutch Jews who did not hide and was never deported. And the DG2 million remained intact throughout the entire war, despite the Liro confiscations. At the war's end, the Dutch government offered the Goudstikkers their recovered paintings in exchange for the money the family had received from Goring. Goudstikker's widow refused. But her heirs now say the price paid by Goring for these great-master paintings was "robbery'' and had been forced on the family by Nazi threats. They have brought suit against the Dutch government for the return of their paintings.

Voss is far more understanding of heirs who have come forward claiming that until recently they were ignorant that family-owned paintings had been stolen or that their families had simply failed to ask for their possessions back at the end of the war. "There was not exactly a warm welcome-home for the surviving Jews. In the atmosphere of the Netherlands of 1945-46, some clearly declined to put in claims for fear it would draw attention to them. Some were even ashamed.''

Unlike the directors of the French government network of museums, who still arrogantly insist they did "all that was required'' to locate surviving owners of art and/or their heirs, the Dutch admit that their postwar searches were inadequate, at least by today's standards. "We didn't have computers then, and there were a handful of working color cameras,'' insists Voss. "People worked by memory, and I think they did their best.''

An art commission is now among the central features of Holland's investigative process into stolen assets. "We have a team of art historians,'' says Voss, "and we're assembling period catalogs where we can, checking the provenance of everything in our possession.''

Members of the other three commissions claim they are equally dedicated to uncovering the truth. Willem Scholten, the highly respected former deputy to the Queen and the effective executive head of Holland's Raad van Staten, its Privy Council, denies there was ever any "decision to enrich the country with Jewish money. If we made mistakes, it is time to acknowledge them. Society is asking for this, and time is pressing.'' But sitting in the sun-filled study of his modest apartment near the Hague, Scholten warns, "You cannot repair history. You can only study it and make some amends. Nor can you look at history with the eyes of today.''

Scholten himself recalls events in his own small hometown in eastern Holland. "We had Jewish neighbors; the father was a butcher. One day the whole family disappeared, and I remember my father saying they had been shipped to Germany at least that's what we thought at the time. So we and all the neighbors divided up their belongings to give them back when they returned. But they didn't return.''(Scholten, who was ten years old at the time, says he believes that most of the items were later given to surviving relatives of the family.)

Did the postwar Dutch government do everything it could to acknowledge the immediate suffering of its surviving Jews, to welcome them home and to reincorporate them into Dutch life? Did it do everything feasible to locate the heirs of unclaimed Liro accounts and art objects? Did it find a way to distribute heirless amounts equitably to the Jewish community? The answer to all three questions is clearly no.

It is also clear that many Dutch Jews, like Louis Halberstadt, simply refused to make claims. Their efforts were directed at starting another life and finding other survivors -if any -a tragically unsuccessful task for most in a country where entire families had been obliterated by the Nazi terror.

The details of survival and renewal in the wake of such soul-searing events are keys to any attempt to understand how survivors responded to the Holocaust. Entire socio-psychological studies have been devoted to the subject. Each story is different. Some defy description. That of Victor Halberstadt and his father, Louis, is both unique and typical, and worthy of telling. "In 1939, Mr. Pohl, a Dutch business friend who was Holland's Volkswagen dealer, told my father, "You know, Halberstadt, I like you. But you're Jewish, so plan to leave. It stinks over there in Germany.' He even offered to help us with money. Instead my father made preparatory arrangements to go into hiding.

"After the Nazis came and the deportation began, we received a coded message from my cousin Harry, who'd been the first in the family to be shipped to a Polish labor camp. "Please send best regards to the brothers K. in Nijmegen for me,' he wrote. It was a pre-agreed message, Harry's way of saying, "Get the hell out of there.' The [brothers] owned a farm at Nijmegen, on the German border. It was there that my father, mother, sister, and grandmother had arranged to go into hiding.

"Because I was so small, I was to go to a family. So one day they put me in a car driven by some underground people; my cousin Max went in another. We were betrayed and stopped outside of Amsterdam. My car escaped, my cousin's didn't. He was deported and gassed on his birthday in March 1943.''

Over the next three years, Halberstadt was passed from family to family. "I think I stayed with a total of eleven Christian families; I don't remember. I know I was supposed to be a cousin from Rotterdam.'' Hiding Jewish children was a crime. At one family, the young Halberstadt mentioned the word Jews. That very evening, he was put on the back of a bicycle and brought to the next family, where he stayed for two years.

At the war's end, Halberstadt's father and two cousins set out by foot to try to find him. "The underground workers kept the locations of hidden children secret, so that if they were caught, they could not betray the children. My father knew vaguely that I was in the south. I was playing on the street one day when three men walked up to me. Remember, they hadn't seen me in three years. One of them, my father's cousin Eli, took my face and began to feel my bone structure. He had been a barber before the war and spent a lot of his time shaving dozens of family members - he knew the family facial structure. "It's Victor,' he said. That night I shared a room with the man my foster family told me was my real father.

"Hidden children like myself were left with certain survivor skills and fears: of rejection and of being left alone, of being unwelcome...of finding it very difficult if at all possible to cry. But we also never talk to one another about those times. Until recently I didn't even know that my sister hadn't been all the time with my parents. We just never talked about it----]just as my father never talked to me about the things that happened before or during the war. You never said, "So-and-so is dead' or "So-and-so was gassed in Auschwitz.' You simply said,"Er iz nisht gekumen zurik' --- "he never returned.'

"I cannot recall one single instance in the thirty-four years that my father lived after the war that he and I ever discussed anything that happened before or during the war. Perhaps my parents talked to one another in bed when the children weren't around. But around us there was a taboo on such subjects, and we copied the taboos of our parents.''

One of the taboo questions was, What happened to everything they had owned before the war? But Halberstadt insists the real question is not why they didn't try to recover their assets but rather "why, having lost all brothers and sisters, cousins----five hundred members of the family all told----why they wanted to live at all? Where did they get the courage?''

To this day, says Halberstadt, he has no answers.


©1999, Richard Chesnoff