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Restitution of Holocaust-Era Assets: Promises and Reality

Filed under: Anti-Semitism, Europe and Israel, International Law
Publication: Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review 19:1-2 (Spring 2007)

Less than 20 percent of the value of Jewish assets stolen by the Nazis and their collaborators has been restored. At least $115-$175 billion (2005 prices) remains unreturned despite numerous clear and explicit international agreements and country promises made during World War II and immediately thereafter. Even the highly publicized resurgence of restitution efforts since the mid-1990s resulted in the return of only 3 percent of Holocaust property. A key reason for these meager results during both periods was the failure to make a unique, comprehensive, and timely effort to deal adequately with an event unequaled in the annals of modern history-the extermination of more than two-thirds of continental European Jewry and the confiscation of nearly all of its assets.

There was a marked divergence between the promises and the reality of returning Jewish assets stolen by the Nazi regime and its collaborators during the Holocaust era. Two key time periods in this regard are the postwar era and the mid-1990s to the present, when there was a resurgence of interest in asset restitution. Certain lessons have emerged from the cumulative experience.

Excluded from the present discussion are other legitimate claims of Holocaust victims such as Nazi-inflicted damage to life, health, and income. These relate to pensions and onetime payments, such as for slave labor.

Estimated Value of Pre-Holocaust Looted Jewish Assets

Historians often argue that it is impossible to calculate the exact amount of Jewish assets stolen by the Nazis and their collaborators during the Holocaust era. Although that is true, it is possible to provide a reasonable estimate that can be used as a framework for understanding the issue in terms of what was lost and what has been restored.

In late-1930s prices, the value of Jewish assets amounted to $10-$15 billion. This estimate is based on a 1998 paper by this author; its methodology draws on the pioneering efforts of Nehemiah Robinson in the 1940s and 1950s and other material.[1] This includes estimates of the Jewish share of wealth for each country in Nazi-occupied Europe, tax records, country estimates published at the time, and the asset declarations that the Nazis forced the Jews to file. The $10-$15 billion range is slightly higher than this author’s 1998 estimate ($9-$14 billion) because the more recent work of Helen Junz[2] shows somewhat higher numbers for Germany. It should be noted that the amount is based on gross values in that it does not subtract loans and mortgages.

In today’s prices (2005) the value of these Jewish assets would be some $143-$215 billion. This was calculated by using the annual increases in the U.S. Consumer Price Index, which from 1939 to 2005 rose by a multiplier of 14.3.[3] This 2005 range should be seen as a minimal amount, as it does not consider earnings from financial holdings or higher real estate values. If these factors were included, the estimated range would roughly double.

How Restitution Fared until the Mid-1990s

The Promises and Pledges

Efforts to restore property taken by the Nazis and their collaborators began well before the end of hostilities. All governments-in-exile from occupied countries nullified the confiscatory actions taken by the invaders. This started with Poland in November 1939, only two months after the country was invaded. By 1943, the French Committee of National Liberation became the eighth European government-in-exile to declare Nazi looting null and void.

Throughout the war, the Allies constantly stated that a major aim was to ensure the return of property stolen, confiscated, or taken under duress.  To that end, the Allies issued on 5 January 1943 the first of several wartime multinational proclamations strongly backing the return of looted assets and invalidating agreements to transfer these items to other parties. The landmark 1907 Hague Convention on international warfare had already stipulated:

Article 46: Private property can not be confiscated.

Article 47: Pillage is forbidden.

Article 56: Institutions dedicated to religion, charity and education, the arts and sciences shall be treated as private property.

Soon after regaining their independence, all occupied countries put in place restitution regulations. Italy was the first, issuing a decree on 20 January 1944. By the end of 1945, others followed, including Germany’s wartime partners-Bulgaria, Hungary, and Romania. Also that year, the neutral countries Portugal, Sweden, and Switzerland passed legislation related to the recovery of stolen property that had ended up in their country. The Allies agreed at the 1945 Paris Conference that the Nazi war on the Jews made them a special group entitled to compensation. As such, individual Jews had the right to demand payment of lost property and other damages from Germany.[4]

The Reality

At most, 15 percent of Jewish assets confiscated from 1934 to 1945 were returned after the war to their owners, their heirs, and Jewish organizations representing heirless claimants. Within Western Europe, the percentage restored for each country roughly ranged from 10 to 60 percent. In Eastern Europe, restitution was negligible. This meant the value of unrestoredassets by the mid-1990s amounted to $120-$180 billion at 2005 prices.[5]

The Emerging Postwar Structure[6]

Immediately after occupying Germany, the Allies moved to safeguard stolen property. The U.S. government instructed its occupation forces to impound “property which has been subject of transfer under duress or wrongful acts of confiscation, disposition or spoliation” and to “institute measures for prompt restitution.” It was not until 1947-1950, however, that the United States, United Kingdom, and France introduced restitution laws in their zones of West Germany and Berlin. The delay mainly reflected two years of failed discussions between the four occupying powers to enact a single restitution law for all of Germany. In Soviet-occupied eastern Germany, the laws on returning property were very limited, applying only to so-called “democratic organizations.” This excluded any private claimants.

In the discussions leading to the formation of the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) in 1952, the Western allies insisted that the new government continue efforts to restore property to Jews and other victims of Nazi oppression. At the same time, negotiations mainly involving West Germany, Israel, and several international Jewish organizations led to the establishment of a new structure, referred to as the Conference on Jewish Material Claims against Germany. Within that context, Bonn enacted the BRÜG law in July 1957 to provide compensation for movable property stolen by the Nazis, which the claimant could identify but could no longer locate. This mainly involved household goods, bank accounts, jewelry, and securities. The BRÜG was steadily expanded with the latest change in December 1994 to include property stolen in the former communist-controlled East Germany.

A structure was also established to handle the vexing problem of returning the vast amount of Jewish property where the heirs could not be located. In each western zone, a group, referred to as a successor organization, was created to press the heirless claims for the Jewish people as a whole. It consisted of major Jewish associations. In the U.S. zone, the Jewish Restitution Successor Organization began operating in 1948. Much of the money received from heirless or unclaimed property in the Allied zones-200 million DM-was used for refugee relief, resettlement, and rebuilding Jewish communities ($50 million in late-1930s prices or $715 million in 2005 prices).

In November 1992, the World Jewish Restitution Organization was formed to handle the return of Jewish property in postcommunist Eastern Europe. It grew out of an alliance between major Jewish international bodies (representing the Diaspora) and the state of Israel, and was aimed at recovering communal property and private assets.

The Process of Returning Property

Postwar restitution progress was painstakingly slow and lasted until the early 1970s. During this twenty-five-year period the emphasis shifted from returning property in occupied countries to pressuring a more economically sound Germany to pay more for the looting by the Nazis. Bonn did respond, though slowly, as it gradually made it easier for claimants to obtain compensation for looted property. From the early 1970s to the mid-1990s, interest in the subject remained dormant though the problems persisted.  With efforts to remedy the situation receiving limited public support, claimants’ inclination to pursue their cases waned. Many survivors just wanted to get on with their lives.

Restitution faced many complications because assets were hard to find and difficult to value while confiscation had taken many paths. A major problem was that most property owners had died in the Holocaust along with their close heirs. Many of the remaining heirs lacked knowledge of the assets or possessed none of the paperwork needed to prove ownership. Among the many other impediments were:

● Many Jews were forced to sell their businesses, homes, and possessions at far less than prevailing market values because of Aryanization and loss of income.

● Property was extracted indirectly via heavy taxes solely on Jews.

● Movables were very difficult to trace. Furniture and other household items were disbursed widely. The bulk was sold or auctioned throughout Europe or ended up in the homes of numerous Nazi officials. A considerable share was simply stolen by Nazi collaborators or greedy neighbors in the occupied territories.

● Stocks, bonds, and other financial instruments often were traded many times and thus were dispersed throughout global markets. To make matters more difficult, much of this financial paper was in the form of bearer instruments, which do not indicate the name of the owner.

● The Soviets confiscated from the Reichsbank in Berlin large amounts of bonds and securities that the Nazis had not sold via Switzerland and other neutral countries during the war. These assets were an important part of the prewar financial portfolio of European Jews.

● Placing a value on the lost property was extremely intricate. The prices of bonds and stocks followed an erratic course as a result of the 1930s depression and the war. Much of the real estate was heavily damaged. Many once-prosperous companies were now defunct or a slim shell of their prewar proportions. Moreover, determining a fair amount to compensate for lost earnings on assets, especially financial holdings, was a highly contentious task.

● In some countries, the looted property was sold or auctioned off cheaply by the Nazis and their collaborators and the receipts placed in a fund. Those running the fund often charged excessive fees for the task. After the war, the amounts remaining in these funds thus were relatively small, leaving little for cash-strapped governments to return.

Given these difficulties, most postwar governments followed a simple path.  They returned properties under state control and/or those that could be easily linked to the original owner. Compensation for lost assets was paid from the meager remaining amounts in Nazi-created funds derived from liquidating property taken from the Jews. In addition, parts of the stolen real estate were returned to their prewar Jewish owners or payment was made to compensate these owners. Proof of ownership of these assets was rather straightforward, as real estate registry records often were available. When it came to other assets, which constituted the bulk of the total, little was done. This mainly involved financial assets (including insurance), enterprises, and household items.

Holocaust restitution remained a low-priority issue following World War II not only because of the complications faced but because of a changing set of national interests. At first, the Allies naturally gave preference to the need to deal with the enormous chaos left in the wake of the war, including the specter of famine and the large number of refugees and displaced persons.

Once these pressing difficulties were overcome, restitution became one of many backburner postwar issues that evolved into mundane discussions and actions lasting for years. Other interests superseded efforts to pressure Western Europe into moving ahead with restitution of stolen Holocaust-era property. The United States gave its highest priority to the Cold War; Israel’s main concern was its fight for survival. In the communist world, the issue disappeared with the regimes’ nationalization of residences and businesses as well as financial institutions and insurance companies that held much of the Jewish wealth.

Moreover, because most European Jews had been killed, the direct pressure to return possessions was substantially reduced. Many survivors had moved out of Europe and had to deal with their homeland government from afar. Complicating the issue was a heated debate within the Jewish community as to whether it should ever again have contacts with Germans, in light of their terrible deeds and the ease with which most had accepted Hitler’s war on the Jews. For many Israelis, “Broaching the topic of the Holocaust brings to mind images of Jews as fragile and vulnerable individuals,” and hence in his reparations negotiations with Germany, Ben-Gurion “distinguished between the acceptance of indemnities for the building of the State of Israel…and private property restitution….”[7]

Finally, in all European countries restitution became a highly sensitive local issue. Many non-Jews felt they were the rightful owners of looted real estate and household items owned by the Jews before World War II. The property often had been in their hands for five years or more. The political establishment had a difficult time coming to grips with the issue because many officials and their constituents were owners of prewar Jewish property. To make matters worse, there was a tight housing market.

Financial institutions meanwhile placed major roadblocks to reclaiming deposited assets, going as far as insisting that heirs provide a death certificate for those killed in concentration camps. No obligation was felt to deal with the extraordinary circumstances created by the Holocaust. Local political pressure to rectify the problems was minimal, given the few remaining Jews and the cover-up of the collaboration of many government and business officials, including those in neutral countries, in seizing or holding on to Jewish assets.

Country Estimates

Most is known about German restitution.[8]  By 1954, restitution under Allied laws was essentially completed. The value of recovered property amounted to roughly 1 billion DM or $150 million, at late-1930s value. Payments until 1997 under the BRÜG were 4 billion DM, which were made to nearly 750,000 claimants who owned assets throughout Europe. This amounts to about $400 million when translated to the dollar-equivalent, pre-wartime values. About one-quarter of the BRÜG payments went to individuals inside Germany. An unknown but significant share of the payments (perhaps one-quarter) was paid to Jews living outside Germany who had escaped during the 1930s. The other half or $200 million was paid to Jews in occupied countries of Europe. In all, about $350 million worth of assets ($150 million plus $200 million) was returned to Jews who had lived in Germany in the late 1930s.

Thus, about 10 percent of the estimated $3-$4 billion in prewar values of Jewish assets confiscated in Germany was restored. This percentage is much higher in quantitative terms, that is, the number of assets. The difference reflects the fact that the restored items were valued in DM, which after the war was made equivalent to 10 RM.

The Allies made this necessary monetary change in 1948 to save the postwar Germany economy from the vast deluge of RM the Nazi regime dumped on the market to pay for the war effort. Indeed, without this Allied action, the German economic miracle that followed would not have taken place or would have been much delayed. The problem is that while both Jews and non-Jews suffered in terms of reduced values of assets as a result of Nazi wartime spending, only a few remaining Jews in Germany were able to benefit from the significant economic gains resulting from the 1948 Monetary Reform.

The only other reasonable country restitution estimate is for Austria-$200 million or a third of the total looted.[9] For the remainder of Western Europe, much less is known about the aggregate return of assets. These countries seemingly did more in restoring assets at a fair value than either Germany or Austria. Thus the calculations used here generously assume they paid back between 40 and 60 percent. In Eastern Europe, it appears unlikely that more than 5 percent of the Jewish property was restored. Thus it is Germany because of low valuations and Eastern Europe because of communist rule that explain the minimal restoration of Jewish Holocaust assets. The two combined account for 85-90 percent of the total of seized property.

Restitution since the Mid-1990s

During the mid-1990s, the concern for completing the restitution task resurfaced with considerable intensity. It was triggered by questions related to the duplicity of Swiss banks in failing to return Holocaust survivors’ or their heirs’ bank deposits made before World War II. It then erupted from a confluence of events. The coming of age of the “third” generation after the Holocaust led to a renewed discussion about how countries and their citizens had reacted to the plight of Jews. This interest was enhanced by the openness of thought and the increased availability of archival material in Russia and Eastern Europe after the demise of the Soviet Union. Aging Holocaust survivors meanwhile wanted to tell their stories as a legacy for the future. Finally, survivors and heirs of those who had perished saw a glimmer of hope after being frustrated by many years of unsuccessful efforts to regain their property. They thus moved more aggressively to pursue their claims.

The enhanced interest was aggressively impelled by politicians, lawyers, and Jewish groups, mainly in the United States. U.S. congressional hearings were held. State banking and insurance regulators (mainly in New York and California) threatened to halt bank mergers involving European banks and not allow insurance companies to do business in their state unless restitution was adequately addressed. Jewish organizations operating in the United States, especially the World Jewish Congress, were highly effective in making politicians and regulators aware of the restitution issue and in publicizing historical information obtained from the U.S. National Archives. A number of lawyers filed aggressive class action suits.[10]


Because of the greater awareness of the issue, European governments and companies were forced to take action. Numerous independent historical commissions were established that documented the means by which the assets were stolen, the complicity of governments, businesses, and individuals in facilitating the looting of Jewish property, and the problems with postwar restitution efforts. This led to apologies by the leaders of several countries.

When it came to returning or paying for stolen assets, however, the negotiations with European countries and businesses were long and arduous.  From the mid-1990s to 2006, only some $3.4 billion was pledged to restore unpaid assets directly to survivors or their heirs or as humanitarian funds to account for the many potential claimants who after fifty years lacked proof and/or knowledge of the stolen assets.[11] Most humanitarian funds were designated to support needy survivors, with some money going to help reestablish European Jewish communities. In addition to these pledges, about half a billion dollars was paid via a few high-profile individual art and real estate legal cases, bringing the total to nearly $4 billion.

Despite the considerable public awareness and U.S. pressure, only about 3 percent of the unpaid Holocaust assets was restored during the ten years since 1995. As a result, more than 80 percent remains unpaid, an amount equal to $115-$175 billion in 2005 prices. Moreover, progress in meeting the pledges was painfully slow.[12] By the end of 2005, only about half of the $3.4 billion pledged was disbursed.

The most comprehensive arrangements were the payments for dormant Swiss bank accounts and to the 2,100 Jews who had lived in Norway before the Holocaust. In both cases, however, the assets involved were a very small portion of stolen Jewish holdings. In the case of the much publicized effort to repay life insurance claims by the International Commission of Holocaust Era Claims (ICHEIC), only about 3 percent was repaid.[13]

For most West European countries, restitution amounted to an additional 5-8 percent of the value of stolen assets bringing their totals to some 40-70 percent. The major exception was Germany, which added only about 2 percent bringing its total to 12 percent. With negligible amounts paid to compensate for East European assets stolen, this region (which accounted for about 60 percent of Jewish Holocaust assets) continues along with Germany to comprise the bulk of unpaid property in value terms.

After 2002, efforts to resolve the remaining restitution issues quickly faded. Most significant was the reduced U.S. political clout, which had been the mainstay of the endeavor. No additional noteworthy congressional hearings were held, efforts by U.S. state regulators diminished sharply, and there were unfavorable court cases. Public interest meanwhile receded along with an appreciable drop in press articles. It should be noted that this cyclical up-and-down pattern is typical for most issues, as heightened public awareness can only be maintained for a few years at best.

For their part, West European governments and their public had little or no incentive to muster the political will needed to restore or compensate for the vast amounts of Jewish property never returned. This largely reflected the view that the issue had been resolved decades ago. There was also no significant number of Jewish voters. Political leaders also did not want to have to explain why they were paying Jews for prewar property when a large number of those in their country were unemployed and their government faced fiscal problems in maintaining social benefits.

East European political leaders did little. They saw their respective countries as being too poor to meet the restitution claims. In addition, they viewed the issue of restoring Jewish assets as a distraction from the task of rebuilding their political-economic systems, and as being perceived as preferential treatment for Jews. Indeed, many countries did little to make historical records available to help pinpoint property stolen from individual Jews. Postwar boundary changes-mainly involving Poland and Germany-raised another political issue: are those countries currently holding the territory or those that controlled it before World War II responsible for returning assets?

Differences among the various Jewish interest groups added a further difficulty. The Jewish communities of Eastern Europe argue that they do not have an adequate say in the return of property. They feel dominated by the much larger communities of North America and Israel and have to contend with persistent anti-Semitism in their countries despite the few Jews left. Still another difficulty concerns how to utilize funds derived from unclaimed property among individual claimants, Holocaust survivors, and Jewish organizations. The latter maintain that a sizable share of the restitution money received should go to the Jewish community as a whole representing the bulk of European Jewry that perished, many of whom lack direct descendants.

Finally, the governments of the United States and Israel, which have the largest Jewish populations, are preoccupied with other issues. Israel must consider its overwhelming security needs in dealing with European governments as well as the question of paying restitution to Palestinian refugees, which is also entangled with the issue of Jews who were forced out of Arab countries. Although the U.S. government has played a key role in pursuing the asset issue, it too faces many crucial issues where it needs support from European countries.

At most, what can now be realistically expected are a winding down of current pledges, a few favorable judgments of individual lawsuits, and some small additional payments from Eastern Europe.

What Was Learned

Looking back at the sixty-year episode of Holocaust-era restitution, one clear lesson emerges.

Societies and their governments often have difficulties in confronting unique circumstances during the short window of opportunity when solutions are politically feasible. The restitution issue was no different even though the Holocaust was the most encompassing genocide event in modern history and there were clear-cut international agreements against conquerors confiscating private property along with strong Allied wartime statements declaring that all such assets must be returned.

One of the rare exceptions to this general rule was the U.S. Marshall Plan, which assisted both European allies and previous foes in reinvigorating their devastated economies following World War II. Although favored by political circumstances-U.S. clout and the emerging Cold War-this extraordinary effort involved much foresight and was carried out effectively.  Comparatively, for Holocaust restitution there was no special solution, and inadequate political emphasis made it just another of many routine postwar issues.

Even after the issue’s strong reemergence in the mid-1990s, little thought was given to comprehensive and unique solutions. The need for imaginative approaches clearly was especially important at that time given the complexities of dealing with assets stolen more than fifty years ago.  Instead the agreements reached were piecemeal and the effort fragmented, reflecting natural reluctance to deal with an issue that entails substantial amounts of expenditure, has little support from countries and companies asked to pay for the losses, and involved considerable differences among the various parties pressing for solutions.

The need for unique solutions was strongly emphasized by Nahum Goldmann, chairman of the World Jewish Congress, in his first meeting with Chancellor Konrad Adenauer to propose a broad settlement on restitution.  He stated, “I knew I was asking for something unusual, something that by conventional standards might be considered incorrect. But this is a unique case…I can expect you to override conventional regulations.”[14]


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[1] Sidney Zabludoff, “And It All But Disappeared: The Nazi Seizure of Jewish Assets,” World Jewish Congress Policy Forum, No. 13, 1998.

[2] Helen Junz, “Report on the Pre-War Position of the Jewish Population in Nazi Occupied Countries, Germany and Austria,” Volcker Report, Appendix S, December 1999.

[3] US Bureau of the Census, “Historical Statistics of the US,” Washington, DC, 1960; International Monetary Fund, “International Financial Statistics,” 1949-2006, Washington, DC.

[4] Norman Bentwich, “International Aspects of Restitution and Compensation for Victims of Nazis,” British Yearbook of International Law, 1955-56, London.

[5] For details, see the subsection on “Country Estimates.”

[6] For this subsection and the next one: Conference of Jewish Material Claims against Germany, “Twenty Years Later, 1952-1972,” New York, 1973; Federal Republic of Germany, “German Restitution for National Socialist Crimes,” London Conference on Nazi Gold, 1957; Marilyn Henry, “The Restitution of Jewish Property in Central and Eastern Europe,” American Jewish Committee, New York, 1997; Nehemiah Robinson, “Reparations and Restitution in International Law as Affecting Jews,” Jewish Yearbook of International Law, 1948; World Jewish Congress, “Reparations, Restitution, Compensation: The Jewish Aspects,” Annual Institute Report, 1956, 26-29; Nana Sagi, German Reparations: A History of Negotiations(New York: St. Martin’s, 1986); Ronald Zweig, German Reparations and the Jewish World(Boulder, CO: Westview, 1987); US Department of State, “Four Phase Program: Final Report on Implementation and Liquidation in the US Zone,” 15 October 1952, US National Archives.

[7] Arie Zuckerman, “The Holocaust Restitution Perspective,” in Michael Bazyler and Roger Alford, eds., Holocaust Restitution (New York: New York University Press, 2006).

[8] See endnote 6 and Louis Pease, “After the Holocaust: West Germany and Material Reparation to the Jews,” dissertation submitted to the Department of History, Florida State University, 1976, 195-98.

[9] US Department of State, “Report on Jewish Heirless Assets in Austria,” 18 May 1953, and “Latest Developments in Restitution Matters in Austria,” 18 June 1953, US National Archives.

[10] John Authers and Richard Wolffe, The Victim’s Fortune (New York: HarperCollins, 2002).

[11] Breakdown by millions of dollars:

Switzerland                             900

Germany                                 694

ICHEIC                                    425

Austria                                    418

France                                    344

Netherlands                             211

Belgium                                  138

Eastern Europe                        62

London Gold Conf.                    60

Norway                                    58

Other                                       50

Total                                        3,360

[12] See Zuckerman, Holocaust Restitution, Chs. 8-11, 23.

[13] Sidney Zabludoff, “ICHEIC: Excellent Concept but Inept Implementation,” Jewish Political Studies Review, Vol. 17, Nos. 1-2 (Spring 2005).

[14] Nahum Goldmann, The Autobiography of Nahum Goldmann (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1977).

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