An American Archivist at Ascona, Switzerland, October 1997
Today’s post is written by Dr. Greg Bradsher.
One clear, chilly evening this week fifteen years I was alone in the foothills above the town of Ascona, Switzerland, wondering “how in the world did I end up here?”
The answer begins in December 1996, in the wake of revelations about Switzerland having dormant bank accounts of victims and survivors of the Holocaust and the country having received gold looted by the Nazis, the Swiss Government created the Independent Commission of Experts-Switzerland: World War II, (most often referred to as the Bergier Commission after the name of its chair, Swiss Professor Jean-Francois Bergier). Its task was to research and report about Swiss financial dealings during World War II. Earlier, in September 1996, President Clinton appointed Stuart E. Eizenstat, then Under Secretary of Commerce, to investigate what would soon be termed Holocaust-Era Assets, then simply referred to as “Nazi Gold.” To accomplish this task Eizenstat established an 11-agency member Interagency Group on Nazi Assets. I joined the group as NARA’s representative. Dr. William Z. Slany, the Department of State’s Chief Historian, had the responsibility for drafting the group’s report. He in turn asked me to prepare a finding aid to relevant records. This finding aid would not only serve as a research tool for the group’s researchers but would serve as an appendix to the report when it was published. Slany formed a research team, consisting of researchers from the Departments of Defense, Treasury, Justice, and State, the U.S. Holocaust Museum, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the Federal Reserve Board. They soon made Archives II their home.
The report, which could be considered critical of the Swiss, and finding aid were published by the State Department in May 1997. Slany acknowledged NARA’s contributions to the completion of the report. In the preface he wrote “All of the research depended directly upon the unfailing support, assistance, and encouragement of the Archivist of the United States and the staff of the National Archives and Records Administration. Our work simply could not have been carried out without this assistance…It is to the credit of the National Archives staff that the needs of researchers-government and private, domestic and foreign-were met with unfailing courtesy and without disruption to research schedules.”
Plans were then made by various countries to hold a Nazi Gold conference in London late that year to discuss the issues surrounding looted gold. During the summer Bergier and his colleagues believed it would be useful for those involved in research on Holocaust-Era assets to meet before the London meeting to discuss matters of mutual concern. Thus, they invited some 25 individuals to meet with the Swiss historians and archivists in late October at Ascona. This meeting on “Nazi Gold” records and research would serve as a forum to discuss research methodology and archival resources, and the various concerns expressed by the increasing number of commissions and governments involved in the search for Holocaust-Era Assets. Slany and I represented the United States. Also in attendance were representatives from Argentina, Canada, Great Britain, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Switzerland.
The meeting was to be held in Ascona, a municipality in the district of Locarno in the canton of Ticino, on the shores of Lake Maggiore. Specifically, it was to be held in a small conference facility above Ascona on Monte Verita (literally Mountain of Truth). Around 1904 a colony was established on Monte Verita which preached the return to nature. Many artists, anarchists, and other famous people during the next thirty years visited the colony including Isadora Duncan, Hermann Hesse, Carl Jung, Paul Klee, and Erich Maria Remarque. In 1926 Monte Verita was bought by the German-Swiss banker and art collector Baron Eduard von der Heydt, who built a hotel there. During the late 1920s and 1930s he made the mountain a well-known meeting place for visitors from politics, art, and society. In 1956 he left the property on the hill to the Canton Ticino, and subsequently a private foundation was established to encourage international cultural activities on an academic level through seminars and conferences at the hotel.
Before Slany and I left for Switzerland we were instructed by the State Department to avoid the press, not even putting ourselves in a position where we would have to say “No Comment.” Slany told me that the Swiss had informed him that the press would not be invited to be present, so there was nothing to worry about. But one afternoon during the meetings, about fourteen news people showed up for a press conference. Bergier apologized for the press, since he had assured us that no press would be present, and indicated the press had great interest in what we were doing at Ascona and were eager for information. He indicated that a day did not pass when there was something in the press about the international research effort. He said we were an “event” for the press. Thus, he asked for our cooperation and understanding, especially since it would show his Government how important his Commission was. I do not recall where Slany went, but I hid in the wooded hills of Monte Verita until the press conference ended.
After the conference, which was a great success, my wife, Mary Lynn Ritzenthaler, who accompanied me, traveled to Lucerne for a few days of fun. Then we traveled to Bern where we visited the Swiss Archives and met with Swiss Federal Archivist Cristoph Graf to discuss issues of mutual concern and met with Bergier Commission staff. We went to the American Embassy where I briefed Madeleine Kunin, the American Ambassador to Switzerland, on Holocaust-Era assets research and what the National Archives was doing to make records accessible. Then it was on to Zurich and back to the United States. Then back to work at Archives II where the reference staff was busy as usual, trying to meet researcher requests, including those dealing with Holocaust-Era assets and those involving Slany’s research team that were undertaking a second report at the request of Congress.
For more information about the National Archives and Holocaust-Era Assets research during 1996, 1997, and the first half of 1998 see Searching for Records Relating to Nazi Gold Part I and Part II.