Millions of dollars in gold bars looted by the Nazis — possibly including gold fillings pulled from the corpses of Jews murdered in the Holocaust — are sitting in Federal Reserve Bank of New York vaults in Lower Manhattan, according to recently declassified documents.
"It totals millions of dollars. Whether its tens of millions we don't know," said World Jewish Congress Executive Director Elan Steinberg.
Nobel laureate and survivor Elie Wiesel was shocked by the news. "We will never come to the end of the story," he said. "Something new will always appear about that period."
Last week, the World Jewish Restitution Organization, established in 1992 to receive restitution on behalf of the Jewish people, urged the United States, Britain and France to turn over the gold and other looted Nazi treasure to "individual sufferers from Nazi persecution, their heirs and their families."
The gold bars, some perhaps with the Nazi swastika emblazoned on them, have been sitting on the bedrock of Manhattan Island — 50 feet below sea level at 33 Liberty St. — for 50 years.
The stacked bricks are owned by foreign central banks and international financial organizations, and believed to be the largest gold repository in the world.
Recently declassified State Department documents revealed that the gold was shipped from Europe to London and New York and included tons found at the Merkers salt mine in Germany. It was there that the Nazis kept the largest collection of gold they looted from the central banks of countries they occupied.
The gold was finally dug up in August, when National Archives in Washington were declassified at the request of the Senate Banking Committee and the World Jewish Restitution Organization, said Israel Singer, chairman of the WJRO executive board.
The first hint that the gold bars may contain gold fillings pulled from the mouths of Jewish Holocaust victims was found in a July 1946 letter from an American diplomat to U.S. Secretary of State George Marshall. The diplomat asked that 8,307 gold bars recovered from the Merker mine be assayed to determine if they "represent melted down gold teeth fillings."
Singer said he did not know if the bars were ever checked, but that if the gold was smelted without being cleaned of all amalgams, it would be possible to determine if gold fillings are in the bars.
"A wedding band uses a different kind of amalgam than dental gold, so you can tell if a gold bar is made from monetary or dental or jewelry gold," he said.
Benjamin Meed, president of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and an executive board member of the WJRO, called the discovery "sickening."
The documents reveal that the gold found in the Merkers mine was redistributed along with other looted Nazi gold valued at $2.7 billion at today's prices.
All but $100 million was sent to the banks of 10 European countries — but primarily to France, Holland and Belgium — by the Tripartite Commission for the Restitution of Monetary Gold. The commission, created in 1946, consisted of officials from the United States, Britain and France.
The gold was moved to the Bank of England's London vaults, with a smaller amount to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. The final distribution is expected to be made soon to the formerly communist Albania.
After that, the WJRO says in its letter, will remain "a substantial residue" of $100 million.
The WJRO letter, signed by its president, Edgar Bronfman, said the organization would be the most appropriate place for the remaining gold, since it was created to "receive heirless property and monies stolen from victims of the Holocaust."
The commission acknowledged that "it is not possible to separate — either in reality or in quantity — gold melted down from the teeth and possessions of people murdered in concentration camps. These are, literally and metaphorically, of inestimable value."
Even as the WJRO request was sent, British Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind was in Switzerland pressing the government there for a full accounting and restitution of gold and other property in accounts opened by Jews and other Nazi victims who were murdered in the Holocaust.
A year ago, Swiss bankers announced that they had conducted a search of their files and discovered accounts now worth $34 million that could have belonged to Nazi victims.
The Swiss Bankers Association dismissed as speculation suggestions that the assets held in these secret accounts could have swelled over time to as much as $7 billion.
But Rifkind revealed last week that his own research of British archives had found that Swiss banks could still be holding billions worth of Nazi gold transferred there during the war.
It has long been alleged that the Swiss kept nearly 90 percent of the gold bought from Hitler's Germany rather than hand it over to the Allies after World War II.
A co-chairman of the WJRO, Avraham Burg, who is also chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, said it was irrelevant how much money remains undistributed.
What is important, he said, is that whatever assets remain are "given back to the victims and their heirs. Where there are no heirs, it should go to the state of Israel, which is the sovereign heir of the Jewish people."
"I do not want to believe that now, 50 years later, there will be an economic continuation of the physical destruction" of the Jews of Europe, he said.
Singer said the gold bullion in Manhattan is the "smallest part of the story" that has only begun to emerge.
"What we have here is one of the greatest…untold financial and tragic stories of the Holocaust," he said.