The saga of the gold looted by the Nazis and concealed or converted by greedy neutrals is very far from finished. It started with revelations about the worst culprits, the notorious “gnomes of Zurich,” Swiss bankers who not only made money thanks to the Nazis but allegedly have also kept control over the secret accounts of Jewish victims. As the story unfolded, it turned out that Swedish big business made profits paid in plundered gold; that the Portuguese also had their share; that French museums still have paintings seized from Jewish collectors; that Allied governments clinched a shady deal over German assets and, once the cold war was on, decided not to fuss about it. With both domestic and international inquiries on, there should be plenty more news to come. Curiously, so far, we have been finding out a lot but learning only a little-and certainly not about ethics and banking. The puzzle is why it has taken more than half a century for the truth to start coming out. Bans on the opening of archives are an insufficient explanation. A factor to take into account is that Jews then wished to forget and now wish to remember.
One worry is that the way this whole matter is being handled will revive the myth of wealthy Jews running the world, sitting on their piles of gold. This legend must be fought to discourage what has been called the “socialism of fools,” a form of anti-Semitism that spells out exploiters’ names only when they sound Jewish. It must be fought for the sake of decency and historical truth as well, and out of respect for the main victims of the Holocaust, the millions of Jews from Eastern Europe’s shtetls and urban ghettos who did not have the money to pay for a golden tooth.
I am in favor of masterpieces being displayed in museums rather than hidden in private palaces. However, since we are living in a world resting on social injustice, it would be absurd to strive for equality exclusively at the expense of the victims of Nazism or their descendants. They are entitled to their paintings or their accounts. This is not the problem. Nor is it the obvious objection that no amount of gold can compensate for the tragic disappearance of a people, a culture, a civilization. The practical issue is simply that, with so many beings exterminated and so much time wasted since, it may be difficult to find heirs for this fortune. In all the investigations and trials–like that of Maurice Papon, the French bureaucrat who sent Jewish children to their deadly destination, which should finally come to trial this fall–the essential purpose is not to punish or to reward. It is to teach to show the mechanisms and the complicities, to analyze how bankers carried on their trade and public servants obediently carried out the orders. All that to preserve the memory and thereby, possibly, prevent a repetition.
Can the sordid story of gold help in this exercise? I dare to venture a suggestion, admittedly without great illusions about it being taken up. Since Swiss banks have now been bullied into parting with cash and the government shamed into making its own contribution to a $110 million Holocaust memorial fund, why not intensify this pressure and set up a huge Holocaust Fund Against Inhumanity, a major instrument for fighting repression throughout the world without making distinctions of nationality or of race? This is the only possible tribute to the victims of the Holocaust, a horror that can be described as at once unique and comparable. Unique in its concentrated terror, in the speedy, scientific, inhuman and irrational extermination of a people on “racial” grounds. Comparable, alas, because lesser monstrosities around the planet are permanent reminders of the depths to which humankind can sink if we do not beware. The project would have the additional advantage of taking the matter out of the hands of the Israeli government. Who could imagine Benjamin Netanyahu or Ariel Sharon on the board of an internalional fund against repression? At the very thought–I claim the liberty to speak in their name– the innumerable members of my family who finished their days in the gas chambers would turn in their nonexistent graves.