Behind the Many Exposes of Nazi Links
Jewish groups heighten probes, and young Jews boldly ask about past
BRUSSELS — When Rabbi David Meyer was growing up in Paris, his parents seemed uncomfortable talking about World War II.
His father hid in a monastery and his mother in an orphanage during the war. His grandparents were deported. When France was freed, the family returned to their Jewish faith but chose to keep quiet about it in public. Mrs. Meyer even "trembled when she said the Friday night prayer."
Their son was different. He studied in England to become a rabbi and now officiates at Beth Hillel synagogue here in Brussels. During recent Friday evening shabbat services, he has delivered sermons about the need for younger Jews to stand up and combat the injustices of the past. "My parents' generation feared that to speak up would invite anti-Semitism," Mr. Meyer says. But "my generation feels more confident."
This newfound willingness to stand up helps explain why unresolved issues from World War II dominate today's front pages. Horrible atrocities and guilty compromises made more than five decades ago and pushed into the dark corners by survivors and participants finally are being brought out into the open light.
In recent weeks, Europe has been gripped by a set of stunning revelations crisscrossing the Continent: Swiss banks covering up looted Nazi gold, French museums holding pilfered Renoirs and Monets, Sweden's Wallenberg family profiting from wartime trade, not to mention Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's newly revealed Jewish ancestry.
These issues do not just fit into historical academic discussions; they shape Europe's present politics. If Europe is battling to forge a single currency and a stronger political union, it's in large part because of the perceived need to keep Germany from becoming too powerful and threatening its neighbors again. Ironically, even British Euroskeptics are motivated by a similar desire: They want to stay aloof from a united Europe out of fear that it will be dominated by Germany.
Asking the tough questions
Economic recession and the rise of the far right in Belgium, France, and Italy also reflect this battle with long-hidden truths. After France's overtly anti-immigrant and anti-Semitic National Front won its third town hall last month, many observers saw the victory as a reaction against the country's recent self-examination of its wartime guilt in deporting Jews. "Right-wing nationalists throughout Europe resent ethnic minority attempts to dredge up history," says Ned Temko, editor in chief of the Jewish Chronicle in London. "They don't want to be forced to answer the painful question, 'Daddy, what did you during the war?' "
Hiding behind the cold war
Until recently, the five-decade-long cold war kept wartime participants from digging too deep into the uncomfortable past. "Countries built up their identity depending on which side they fell on the Iron Curtain," explains Mr. Temko. "Everyone edited their history so they could confront the new enemy." In the rush to confront the Russians, the Allies liberated some big Nazi criminals and pushed under the table comparatively small offenses such as money-laundering.
"The end of the cold war opened up all sorts of archives in the East with new information," says Hector Feliciano, a Paris-based author of a book on stolen Nazi art. "At the same time, the end of communism let all countries look into their soul. Before, people told me that we couldn't look at these things because we had to fight communism."
Since the Nazis persecuted Communists, the Russians never forced their East European allies to question their role as "victims" of Nazi aggression. Most Communist countries seized millions of dollars of Jewish property initially confiscated by the Nazis. Only in recent weeks have Hungary, the Czech Republic, and other former Communist countries begun to restitute this property.
"The collapse of the Soviet Union is letting us pose once unaskable questions, on both sides of the Iron Curtain," says Stephen Berkowitz, an American rabbi in Paris. "As we feel free to investigate, the Holocaust keeps unfolding before us in its enormity."
What once looked black and white, good versus evil, now is coming to look more and more shaded. Not long ago, neutral nations such as Sweden, Portugal, and Spain - not to mention Switzerland - thought of themselves as outside the line of fire, or even better, as heroes. After all, Swedish diplomat Raul Wallenberg saved hundreds of thousands of Jews in Budapest from certain death in Auschwitz. But now several new books reveal that the Swedish business establishment - dominated by the same Wallenberg family - was sympathetic to the Nazis and profited from trade with them.
"There used to be a vision of sinners and saints, and only now are we becoming more subtle and sophisticated in what went on during the war," says Tony Blayfield, a historian and author. "I was brought up to think of the entire Dutch community as being as a shining beacon and light, but now I know that there was a darker side to the picture, that many Dutch collaborated and helped the Germans do their dirty work."
Role of the American Jews
Many of the investigations uncovering this new truth have been led by American Jews, particularly the World Jewish Congress. Founded in 1936, it successfully pressed Germans to make reparations to Jews in the 1950s. While the WJC has branches here in Europe, all questions are referred back to New York, where president Edgar Bronfman has his office.
Mr. Bronfman has used his high public profile as chairman of the multibillion dollar liquor company Seagram & Sons to lobby world leaders from Boris Yeltsin to Bill Clinton. Meanwhile, Israel Singer, the WJC's secretary general, and Executive Director Elan Steinberg have done much of the legwork. In the 1980s, the duo unveiled former UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim's Nazi past. Now they are leading negotiations with the Swiss government, which have resulted in the recent announcement of a multibillion reparations fund.
Concerns of a backlash
Some European Jewish leaders have vigorously backed the American-led investigations, but many others complain that their American colleagues are too aggressive.
Famed Vienna-based Nazi hunter Simon Weisenthal, for example, has said that the focus should be on those who killed Jews, not those who stole from them. And he has expressed worries that what he calls the WJC's stridency could spur a revival of anti-Semitism in Europe.
"Jews in Europe have been of two minds about the recent revelations," explains editor Temko. "They do want the truth to come out. But they are also concerned about the possible backlash."
Either way, the revelations have encouraged Europeans to lift the lid. The generation of Frenchmen who lived through the war thought it was best buried under the myth of French resistance. Otherwise, the country risked exploding into civil war. The late President Franois Mitterrand, the last member of his generation to hold power, admitted only at the end of his life that he had worked for the collaborationist Vichy government.
The new French President Jacques Chirac was too young to participate in the war, and last July, he finally admitted the French state's responsibility in deporting more than 70,000 French Jews. Before, the French government insisted on Nazi responsibility or that Vichy did not represent the present French Republic. Not accidentally, early this year a top appeals court ended 15 years of stalled legal proceedings and announced that former Vichy leader Maurice Papon would stand trial for his role in the deportations. "Chirac's speech was a real turning point," says Yves Derai, editor in chief of Tribune Juif in Paris. "It has unlocked all sorts of doors."
These doors lead in strange places. When Mr. Feliciano began looking into newly opened archives of stolen wartime art, he was shocked to find that some of France's greatest art museums held nearly 2,000 works taken from wealthy Jewish families or sold voluntarily by collaborators.
"One person who lost her art told me, 'After the war, I was just so happy to have survived,' " says Feliciano, whose book "The Lost Museum" will be published in May in the US. "Now she says, 'I can claim these paintings back.' "
In the wake of Feliciano's revelations, the French government has ordered a thorough investigation and the return of stolen goods to their victims.
Other the acts of contrition will probably spread - even across the Atlantic. Investigators have begun looking into how the US refused to return captured Nazi gold to Holocaust victims.
"The next revelations will be about us," says British-based Mr. Blayfield. "I think we're going to have to look hard at why Britain and America accepted so many war criminals and did so little to help." Blayfield and other observers believe it is healthy for countries to be able to examine their full history. But they worry that their hunt for the truth could go too far.
"We must not lose our perspective and give into a sort of handwringing 'We're all guilty,' " he says.
Both the dangers of the war and its lessons continue to confront Europe. Across the Continent, the progress of extremist parties that certainly would have been banned right after the war, such as France's National Front, illustrates this point. But at the same time, the progressive process of coming to terms with the past continues.
Still Dealing With Nazis? Revelations of the Past Year
MORE than a half century after World War II, the world has not heard the last of what Germany's Nazis did - or of nations that worked with them. But over the past year, fresh allegations and evidence have surfaced at a fast clip.
Most revelations, naturally, have been in Europe, forcing much national soul-searching. Switzerland, Portugal, Spain, and Sweden, which claimed to be officially neutral during the war, have been criticized for profiting from contacts with the Nazis. Switzerland's banks have borne the brunt of the censure, especially for dealing in assets of captured or slaughtered Jews.
Portugal sold Germany food, textiles, and boots, but made most of its money selling tungsten, an alloy used in steel, which helped the Nazi war machine. Spain, too, exported goods to the Nazis, receiving $138 million in gold as payment.
Some Swedish banks are suspected of earning money by dealing in gold from the Nazis. And some family members of Swedish diplomat Raul Wallenberg - famed for helping Jews escape through Hungary - may have profited from Nazi business.
Austria last fall auctioned off artwork taken from Jews, with the proceeds going to Holocaust survivors and their families.
In Paris, many works in the Louvre museum are now suspected of having been owned by Holocaust victims. A probe is under way. In addition, the French government suspended the sale of certain state-owned pieces of real estate in Paris last fall when it was revealed that much of the property might have been taken from Jews during the war.
War-crimes trials of former Nazis also continue in Europe. Erich Priebke and Karl Hass are currently awaiting trial in Italy for their part in a massacre of civilians in Italy, and Maurice Papon is on trial in France on charges of complicity in the arrest of over 1,500 Jews during the war.
In the United States and Canada, officials have stepped up their hunt for Nazi military officers or their collaborators who found haven in the North America. Recent news reports claim hundreds of Nazi war criminals may still live in Canada.