Appointed by President Clinton to investigate and track down looted Holocaust art and cultural treasures stolen during World War II across Europe, Ira Leesfield was recently recognized by the Miami Herald for the role he played in the U.S. Presidential Advisory Commission on Holocaust Assets from 1998 to 2000.
The release of George Clooney’s latest movie, The Monuments Men, has led many men and women to being honored at various Washington institutions that played major roles in the protection, investigation, and in several cases, rescue of European treasures during and after World War Two.
The Commission made several significant findings, some of which are below:
The Commission concluded that United States forces in Europe made extraordinary efforts to locate, safeguard, identify and restitute assets taken by the Nazis and their collaborators from victims of the Holocaust. Because of the enormity of Nazi crimes, the undertaking by U.S. agencies to preserve, protect and return looted assets was unparalleled in history and willingly carried out by a victorious power committed to righting the wrongs of a defeated enemy regime. U.S. military and civilian personnel encountered a myriad of obstacles under the very difficult circumstances prevailing in postwar Europe. Their achievements were nothing short of heroic.
Nevertheless, the restitution policy formulated in Washington, D.C. and implemented in the countries in Europe occupied by the United States could never fully address the unimaginable dimension and complexity of restituting assets to victims of the Holocaust. For the most part, the inadequacies in both policy and implementation reveal that U.S. authorities were driven by necessity. They were often unable to restitute all of the victims’ assets under their control because of practical concerns that commingled with conflicting interests, priorities and political considerations. Restitution competed with, and was often subordinated to, the desire to bring American troops home, the need to rebuild devastated European economies and provide humanitarian assistance to millions of displaced persons, and the Cold War. These shortcomings can be partially explained as an unintended consequence of adherence to international legal principles, but the Commission’s research has also revealed that, when it came to assigning scarce manpower and resources, the United States accorded a relatively low priority to restoring the looted assets and lost property rights of individual victims and their heirs.
With respect to many types of assets, the United States followed international legal tradition and undertook only to restore property to national governments, which it assumed would be responsible for satisfying the claims of their citizens. When the United States recognized that this arrangement excluded those who no longer had a nation to represent their interests, or who had fallen victim to the ruthless efficiency of Nazi genocide and whose property had been rendered heirless and unidentifiable, it designated certain “successor organizations” to sell heirless and unclaimed property and apply the proceeds to the care, resettlement and rehabilitation of victims. This innovation seemed to present an attractive alternative to the difficult and resource-intensive job of tracing individual ownership, but its adoption led many assets to be too hastily labeled as heirless or unidentifiable, with the result that they were assigned to the successor organizations, rather than returned to their rightful owners. This approach had a particularly negative impact on the ability to identify and restitute assets that had been taken from Roma and Sinti, homosexual, and disabled victims, who had no international organizations representing their interests.
Far more regrettable is the United States’ failure to adequately assist victims, heirs and successor organizations to identify victims’ assets, instead relying upon them to present their own claims, often within unrealistically short deadlines, with the result that much victim property was never recovered. Even when property was returned to individual owners or their heirs, it was often only after protracted, expensive and insensitive administrative proceedings that yielded settlements far less than the full value of the assets concerned.
While the overall record of the United States is one in which its citizens can legitimately take pride, even the most farsighted and best-intentioned policies intended to restitute stolen property to its country of origin failed to realize the goal of returning property to the victims who suffered the loss. Indeed, there remain today many survivors or heirs of survivors who have not had restored to them that which the Nazis looted. And, in large part, it will remain forever impossible to return the actual assets stolen from them over 50 years ago.
The uniqueness of the Holocaust does not negate its ability to offer lessons for the behavior of government in other contexts, and the Commission also believes that it is important that these findings lead our government to develop policies to promote the preservation and restitution of the assets of victims of persecution associated with future armed conflicts.
It is an enduring strength of American democracy that we can look honestly at the results of our actions, address their implications, and assess accountability and responsibility. In setting forth the following findings, the Commission does not imply that failures of policies to accomplish their goals are attributable to bad motives on the part of any official, agent or institution of the United States. Where combinations of policy and circumstance led to results that can be improved upon now, the Commission suggests ways to achieve these improvements. Where new facts have come to light that argue for changes in policy, the Commission proposes appropriate changes. The findings that are associated with particular policy recommendations are meant to locate those recommendations in the historical context and not to mechanistically quantify or assign dollar values to perceived historical shortcomings in U.S. policy making or implementation.
The Commission believes that this history, viewed as a whole, suggests that a series of actions to be taken now are appropriate to provide a modicum of justice to Holocaust victims and their heirs. It is the desire to do justice that animates American policy in this area, including this Commission’s recommendations.