By Martin Dean, Cambridge University Press, New York, N.Y. 448 pages, $60

In 1998, the United States hosted the Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets. Forty-four governments gathered to discuss issues related to Nazi spoliation of property during World War II. By a statement known as the Washington Principles, the nations agreed to open archives, conduct research and to encourage persons persecuted by the Nazis to pursue claims for restitution of property. 1

Claims were to be resolved on the merits. Many countries responded by setting up restitution boards and the Clinton administration was particularly active in seeking justice for Holocaust victims.

With respect to cultural property, museums indicated a willingness to forego technical defenses and to resolve claims on the merits. Museums participating in the Washington conference agreed to research and report on the tens of thousands of objects of European origin in their collections that changed ownership from 1933 to 1945 but for which the provenance documents were missing.

But in the decade that followed the conference, U.S. museums were unique in the world for launching legal attacks on Jewish claimants who came forward at the invitation of the Washington Principles. In Germany, courts abided by the principles, setting aside statutes of limitations and laches and resolving claims on the merits. Other civilized countries set up restitution commissions and returned major stolen collections.

But in Toledo, Ohio, Detroit, Boston and New York City, museums retaliated against Jewish claimants who proffered claims and launched lawsuits to “quiet title.” A U.S. judiciary hostile to the “soft law” of the Washington Principles simply ignored them, using the doctrines of laches and defenses of statutes of limitations to ensure that the property claims were defeated.

Museums now argue that Jews “voluntarily” surrendered their property and “voluntarily” sold their prized art collections when fleeing Nazi persecution. The U.S. press reprints vitriolic slanders against claimants, mindlessly accusing them of “extortion.”

The doctrine of laches simply does not apply in the Holocaust context. Entire families were killed and two generations were prevented from accessing the evidence by laws blocking access to the archives they would need to prove not only who they were related to, but what those families owned. When the United States following the war returned Austrian police records to Austria to facilitate Jewish property claims, Austria simply destroyed the records.

So when Nazis required Jews to sign receipts saying that all of their sales were voluntarily, how does a lawyer prove that several million people didn’t simply liquidate their property and flee for their lives?

Martin Dean’s “Robbing the Jews” provides the compelling answer. “Robbing the Jews” covers much more than just cultural property. It explains how the Nazis used a variety of insidious legal mechanisms to steal literally everything from the Jews, to pauperize them, disempower them, to break their spirits and humiliate them – all in a perfectly legal manner that until now has remained practically invisible and largely neglected by U.S. legal scholars and historians.

As Mr. Dean points out, a significant portion of the criminal charges and evidence collected at Nuremberg for the trial of Nazi war criminals related to looting of Jewish personal property. But since World War II, the focus of Holocaust study and remembrance has been on the immense human tragedy.

In 2006 German historian Goetz Aly drew controversy in “Hitler’s Beneficiaries: Plunder, Racial War, and the Nazi Welfare State” (Metropolitan Books 2007) by arguing that the average German benefitted economically during the war and enjoyed a higher standard of living because the war was financed by completely despoiling Jews and plundering other occupied areas to the point of starvation of their civilian populations.

“Robbing the Jews” is the first comprehensive look at the mechanisms by which that plunder occurred. Mr. Dean wisely focuses less on motive and more on the facts: He shows us how the plunder occurred. From 1933 to 1938, a series of legal measures made Germany unlivable for Jews, drove them out of their professions, terrorized them, and extorted them to leave. A series of confiscatory measures were set up to ensure that they would have to liquidate their assets to pay confiscatory taxes prior to leaving.

In 1938, the confiscation became total. That April, Goering, facing a financial crisis in his military buildup, decided that to finance the war machine he would simply take all of the property of wealthy Jews who had in excess of 5,000 Reichsmarks in assets. A decree compelling these Jews to declare their assets led to calculations by the fall of 1938 that billions of Jewish assets would be “available to the Reich.”

‘Robbing the Jews” demonstrates, law by law, how Jews became caught in a trap rendering them utterly powerless and impoverished. A “Jewish Property Declaration” law forced Jews to list all assets. A Reich flight tax confiscated 25 percent of their property to the Reich. An additional 25 percent “Atonement Tax” was imposed to pay for the “damage” caused by the November 1938 pogrom against the Jews. Confiscation orders blocked all foreign securities. All jewelry and precious metals were confiscated. Jewish bank accounts were blocked except for transactions pre-approved by the government. Foreign exchange rates for Jews confiscated 96 percent of the value of their Reichsmarks. Jews could only rent from Jews. Laws forced Jews to live only in certain zones. The Nazi regime imposed endless paperwork, fees, penalties and bureaucracy. At every stage, Jews were forced to sign papers stating that it was all perfectly voluntary.

Once deprived of assets and subjected to increasing physical violence, panicked Jews sought to flee the Reich but could not afford the fees or comply with the regulations. As Mr. Dean portrays it, spoliation of the Jews was possible to a large degree due to the active assistance of bankers, lawyers, insurance companies, brokers, art dealers, moving companies, and other bribe-takers and opportunists.

By the time the Nazis came up with the “Final Solution,” Jews had largely been despoiled and had now become an economic burden for the Reich. The horrific images that we see of Jews lining up for concentration camps were largely of people who had already been despoiled of both domestic and foreign assets. Nazis forced Jews to cash in life insurance policies and took the cash. Once the insurance policies were liquidated, the Jews were murdered.

In Elie Wiesel’s “Night,” he recounts the tale of a man named Moishe the Beadle who left a Jewish town. He returned to the town telling tales of Nazis rounding up Jews and killing them. The townspeople, annoyed, concluded he is crazy and ignored him. Until the day that they were rounded up.

If, like much of the U.S. public, you are tired of people complaining about the Holocaust, it would be wise to remember the story of Moishe the Beadle. Those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it. And those who abandon the promises of General Eisenhower, who ignore the treaties negotiated by a victorious United States with Germany and Austria to obtain restitution of the property stolen from the Jews, and who ignore the Washington Principles are violating the property rights that are the foundation of our nation’s fundamental liberties.

“Robbing the Jews” is a good read. Mr. Dean avoids jargon and intersperses his technical discussions with case studies showing how these laws and obscure administrative measures affected individuals and families. It reveals in a compelling fashion the story of one of the world’s greatest economic crimes and how it was accomplished.

If you enjoy reading about true crime, this is the book. If you want to know why the United States made restitution of Jewish property a condition of German and Austrian sovereignty, why the U.S. State Department opened up U.S. courts to remedy the wrongs perpetrated by the Nazis and why the U.S. Supreme Court has held those remedies open, this is the book. 2

Next month, the Czech government is holding a conference in Prague on Holocaust Era Assets that will be attended by 49 countries. 3 “Robbing the Jews” will prove an important resource for judges and lawyers confronting Jewish property claims and the template for future studies.

Raymond J. Dowd is a partner of Dunnington Bartholow & Miller. He has been selected to speak at the Looted Art Working Group of the 2009 Prague Conference on Holocaust Era Assets.

Endnotes:

1. http://www.lootedart.com/MG7QA043892.

2. Bernstein v. N.V. Nederlandsche-Amerikaansche, 210 F.2d 375 (2d Cir. 1954); Republic of Austria v. Altmann, 541 U.S. 677 (2004).

3. www.holocausteraassets.eu.