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USA: Behavior in Nazi Era Examined

Associated Press
August 27th, 2000

WASHINGTON -- The international reckoning over evils of the Holocaust is about to come home to America.

The country that would prefer to be known more for its World War II heroism will take its turn in examining how some in corporate America and official Washington also failed Hitler's victims.

''There are things that have to be faced up to,'' said Elan Steinberg, World Jewish Congress executive director.

In four years of lawsuits, soul-searching, revelations and arm-twisting, the United States has led in promoting Holocaust truth-telling. And it has helped Jewish groups wrest billions of dollars from European governments and companies and institutions that profited from Nazi Germany.

That includes Swiss banks that hid Holocaust victims' money, European insurers with unpaid policies held by victims and German companies that used slave labor.

In the coming weeks, Jewish organizations plan to push for payments from dozens of America's oldest and best-known corporations -- some still not named publicly -- who they accuse of using forced labor. They also want to see company archives.

''It's their turn,'' said Steinberg. ''American companies were collaborating with Nazi Germany at a time when we were at war, because there was an ethos that demanded huge profits at the expense of everything else.''

At the same time, a presidential panel will report on what the government did with jewelry, art and other valuables that were stolen from Holocaust victims and came under U.S. control before, during or after the war.

Separate inquiries of American business and government have been long planned. It's just coincidence they are coming together now.

The presidential panel has collected information on government handling of assets for two years and promised its report in mid-October. Government officials have held talks in recent months with some companies on how to meet forced-labor claims.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce announced May 1 that it would organize a Holocaust fund. But it hasn't received a single pledge, and officials say the effort is stalled on individual companies' legal and public image concerns.

''We're trying to do the right thing,'' said the chamber's Stephen Jordan.

With 1,000 aging survivors dying each month, Jewish organizations say they'll appeal directly to corporations.

''We are looking at this as an issue to bring up with these companies in September, and we intend to bring it up very firmly and very decisively,'' said Gideon Taylor of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany.

''The issue is really whether America companies will face up to their historical responsibility in a way that is moral and proper,'' Taylor said.

The turn to American companies comes as officials try to tally the financial losses in Nazi persecution. The regime killed about 6 million Jews and 5 million others, including communists, homosexuals, gypsies and the mentally retarded. All the while, it was looting gold, art and bank accounts across occupied Europe.

There have been extensive compensation programs, but they left gaps in who received money and for what wrongs.

This new round of payment-seeking began after the fall of the Berlin Wall and declassification of government documents. The 50th anniversary of the end of the war in 1995 started a new push to settle claims.

The campaign has frayed relations among some nations and drawn criticism that it dishonors victims by focusing too much on money.

''This isn't about the money,'' says spokeswoman Alissa Kaplan of the claims conference. ''It's about moral responsibility and it's about historical accuracy.''

Still, critics complain of ''Holocaust fatigue'' and a ''Holocaust industry'' of lawyers, paid negotiators, researchers, government envoys and other who make a living off the effort to reach the settlements.

Seventeen nations have established commissions to look into Holocaust issues.

U.S. companies, however, have succeeded in lying low while the battle played out across the ocean.

In recent years -- since a U.S. lawsuit was filed against Ford Motor Co. -- a number have hired historians to study wartime dealings. None has released findings, though some promise they will.

The U.S. lawsuit against Ford was dismissed. But Ford acknowledged that its German subsidiary, Ford-Werke AG, used Buchenwald concentration camp labor to build trucks and light armored vehicles in Cologne.

Werke is contributing $13 million to the $5 billion fund German government and industry agreed on for former laborers as a way to end U.S. lawsuits. After two years of negotiations, it began taking claims Aug. 12.

Ford's U.S. headquarters maintains it was not responsible for German operations after its assets were seized in 1941. It's an argument made by many American companies with German subsidiaries.

Deputy Treasury Secretary Stuart Eizenstat, top U.S. official on Holocaust issues, says some should donate nonetheless.

''Among those benefiting from conscript labor were scores of companies owned in whole or part by American firms before they were nationalized by the Nazi regime,'' he said at the May 1 Chamber of Commerce announcement.

''Though the American firms may have had no part in the decision to use conscript labor, or in the hideous working conditions, many of the subsidiaries were returned to their American parents after the war,'' he said.

Eizenstat called the fund ''a very important moral gesture'' that would help ''heal the wounds of the past, avoid confrontation and tension, and ... settle or prevent lawsuits and other potential pressures on American firms.''





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