It started with a bluff.
In August 1995, after hearing new reports of Nazi loot and Holocaust victims’ accounts sitting unclaimed in Swiss banks, Jewish Agency chairman Avraham Burg sent out a news release.
Hundreds of millions of dollars rightfully belonging to Jews still were being held by the banks, he said in the release. Burg would “demand that the heads of the Swiss banks return the money.”
“We didn’t have a thing,” Burg acknowledged in a recent interview. “We just read it in the paper and said we’d like to explore it. We kept pressing - and all of a sudden, the whole world collapsed.”
After first denying there were any such accounts, Swiss bankers announced on Sept. 12, 1995 - two weeks after Burg’s news release - that they had found up to $34 million that could belong to Jews killed in the Holocaust.
That initial revelation soon became a flood of disclosures that spread across Europe.
More than a half-century after the defeat of the Nazis, the most vigorous search yet for their victims’ property - led by Burg and World Jewish Congress President Edgar Bronfman - is forcing a revision of the history of Europe’s economic collaboration with the Nazis.
In the past 18 months, investigations have begun in Sweden, where the government is combing its central bank vaults for gold stolen by the Nazis; Portugal, which allegedly received truckloads of looted gold; and France, where millions of dollars in jewelry, gold, bonds and cash were confiscated from Jews deported to Nazi death camps.
The United States, Britain and France have agreed to freeze the return to European countries of gold looted by the Nazis and turned over to the Allies after World War II. The remaining $68 million may be used to compensate Holocaust victims.
And in Switzerland itself, an international commission is pursuing allegations that Swiss banks hold up to $7 billion in unclaimed and looted Jewish assets.
“All of a sudden, it’s all over the place,” Burg said. “We’re in the middle of negotiations with 19 different governments.”
As head of the Jewish Agency - the main link between Israel and Jews around the world - Burg, a 41-year-old with prime ministerial aspirations, is center-stage in the drama.
A tall, boyish-looking man with the skullcap of the religiously observant, Burg is the son of one of the country’s most respected politicians - Yosef Burg, a Cabinet minister for 34 years. His mother’s father was chief rabbi of Hebron. His father’s mother died in the Treblinka death camp.
In March 1995, Burg became head of the Jewish Agency, one of Israel’s most powerful institutions. In the two years since, his 12- and 14-hour days increasingly have become consumed with the hunt for the plunder of the Holocaust.
The money itself, he insists, is not the point. It is the principle - that no one should profit from the deaths of 6 million Jews.
There have been previous searches, fueled by persistent rumors of hidden Nazi loot and claims of Jews whose parents or relatives died in the camps, but left no account numbers or other information to pierce Switzerland’s banking secrecy laws.
In 1962, after years of denying they held such assets, the Swiss banks said they had found $8 million belonging to Holocaust victims, which they paid to Jewish charities. When Burg first met with Swiss officials, they insisted there were no more dormant accounts, then - three months later - came up with $32 million. Burg suspects there is much more.
Why are these discoveries being made now, 50 years after the fact?
A key factor is the collapse of the Soviet bloc, which opened up thousands of secret files, and the expiration of 50-year confidentiality laws in the United States, which made public a wealth of information, including crates of documents from Operation Safehaven, a postwar U.S. intelligence effort to track Nazi assets.
In addition, Burg points to a general soul-searching in Europe.
Burg expects much more to come out of the Pandora’s Box he has helped open, but refuses to speculate on how many countries and how much money eventually might be involved.
“We don’t even see the beginning of it, much less the end,” he said. “I do not believe even for a moment that this story will be closed in a matter of months. It’s a question of years.”
Before Burg’s last trip to Switzerland, he was approached by a middleaged man who thrust a pile of documents on him - the medical records of the man’s mother, who had been in Auschwitz. Among the items noted were “six healthy golden teeth removed from her mouth for further use.”
During a meeting with Swiss officials, an argument broke out, and one official started shouting at Burg.
“I said, ‘You know what, I’m not sitting here on my behalf,”’ Burg recalled. “I took out the document, I read the line, and I said, ‘I’m sitting here in this room on behalf of six healthy golden teeth removed for further use.”’