Archives and Research

A Source for Holocaust Research: The United Restitution Organization Files

Anne Rothfeld, April 2000

There has recently been renewed attention given to the Holocaust, as issues ranging from compensation claims for victims and the return of stolen Jewish property to the establishment of a Holocaust museum in Berlin have made the news. Researchers with an interest in Holocaust and post–World War II studies will be interested in the United Restitution Organization (URO) case files, a little-known archival resource housed at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Archives in Washington, D.C. This collection contains detailed restitution claims submitted by Holocaust victims that show the human experience of Nazi oppression in short, shocking statements. The collection will be of value to researchers interested in developing additional insights into the variety and extremity of Nazi oppression.

Holocaust Compensation and Restitution

After the division of Germany into occupied zones in 1945, the French, U.S., and British military governments enacted legislation to provide restitution to the victims of Nazism. Restitution, as defined by the western Allies, was for "property stolen, confiscated, or taken under duress."1 Compensation was to be given for the "loss of liberty, health, profession, and other forms of injury."2 The legislation applied to German subjects and Allied and other foreign nationals who had been imprisoned, murdered, or forced to participate in the German war machine. The law did not, however, extend to victims in the USSR and the Eastern European countries , as the former Soviet Union could not reach an agreement with the Western countries regarding restitution given Cold War divisions.3

The URO was established in 1948 by Jewish organizations and administered under the umbrella of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims against Germany, also known as the Claims Conference, to serve as counsel and legal aid to Holocaust survivors outside of Germany and Israel who had not been covered under other compensation agreements. Claimants could register claims for compensation and restitution from the Federal Republic of Germany. The URO soon became the largest legal aid organization for the help of claimants of small financial means.4

When the West German parliament, the Bundestag, passed restitution and compensation fund legislation in the early 1950s, it established the Bundesentschädigungsgesetz (BEG), or the Federal Indemnification Law (for the compensation of the victims of National Socialist persecution).5 This legislation broadly defined a survivor as anyone who "because of race, religion, or ideology, was persecuted by National Socialist oppressive measures, and, in consequence thereof, has suffered loss of life, damage to limb or health, liberty, property, possessions, or vocational or economic pursuits."6 The West German government subsequently paid out an estimated $35–45 billion to settle over 280,000 compensation claims made by survivors and their next of kin.7

Many restitution claimants were unable to afford necessary legal services, and their costs were borne by the URO, which later recovered a modest fee when claims were proved successful and closed. The URO then processed the paperwork for claims and ensured the paperwork met the legal standards negotiated by
the Claims Conference. Claimants represented by the URO were living in all parts of the world, and each claimant was seen in the office of the claimant's country of residence. In a large proportion of these case files, proof of damage and supporting evidence had to be provided for the claimant to receive monies. Revealingly, the majority of the restitution cases were for mental illness, one of the tragic legacies of Nazi persecution upon European Jews.

The Restitution Case Files Go to the Holocaust Museum's Archives

In 1990 the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Archives became the repository for the URO's closed BEG case files from the Los Angeles and Toronto offices, the two largest URO offices in North America. Other smaller series such as the Dutch restitution claim files, which document property confiscated by the Office of Alien Property Registration in 1942, arrived from the U.S. Department of Justice. Today, this URO collection is stored in a secure facility in Washington, D.C.

The archives negotiated an agreement with the URO to keep the files closed for a specific period of time: from the date of the last document in each file, or proof of the death of individual claimants.8 As a result, many of the case files are just now being opened to researchers. The URO collection consists of two large series: the Toronto and Los Angeles case files. From its location in Canada, the Toronto office, the larger of the two, dealt with claims from all over North America. The Toronto office series is divided into several subseries that provide detailed accounts of property stolen from and crimes committed against the victims of Nazi persecution. Many of the claimants' statements taken during the claim process are lucid in their detail of Nazi persecution, and include only what happened to the claimant from 1933 to 1945.

When the collection arrived at the museum archives, it had been divided into five parts: the BEG, Pink, Green, Brown, and Jewelry series. Unfortunately, there was no description of what these designations signified. Most of the files contain similar paperwork and correspondence, yet each subseries represents a different type of restitution, be it for loss of property or loss of freedoms. The archives staff have made many attempts to decipher the color system's meaning but to no avail. Letters to former URO staff members in Toronto requesting information about the meaning of the color system have gone unanswered. It can only be speculated that the colors delineated claims made in different provinces of Germany, the status of the claims, or the particular restitution legislation that the URO was following.

Description of Correspondence and Forms

To make restitution claims, survivors filled out one of three forms (fragebogen): "A," "B," or C." The Schaden an Leben, the "A" form, is strictly for claims of bodily harm or damage to life or injuries inflicted by the Nazis upon concentration or labor camp inmates. In most cases, the next of kin is making the claim on the "A" form. Personal data for the claimant or next of kin making the claim is provided along with what is known to be the cause of death. On the following pages, questions cover Nazi crimes committed against the claimant; whether claimant was interned during the time of the crime(s) committed; whether they are in doctor's care due to resulting injuries; and whether they had asked for or received pension monies such as social security or war service pension. Information on the claimant's vita and earned wages from the last three years before death was also requested. The form went further, inquiring if wages were collected during the period of Nazi persecution, and requesting wage information prior to internment. Information was also needed from widows, widowers, or next of kin, including personal and professional data, and a statement of their wartime experiences. Data was collected on claimants' children as well as genealogical information for two previous generations. Under the claimant's oath, the claimant or the next of kin was to name witnesses who could verify the claims, and statements were taken from other concentration and labor camp survivors who witnessed similar crimes while interned. Individual files could, therefore, contain eyewitness accounts as well as life histories of Holocaust victims and their relatives.

The Schaden an Körper oder Gesundheit, the "B" form, is used for claims of bodily harm relating to health injuries committed by the Nazis. The "B" form is very similar to the "A" form in its layout and type of questions. Beginning with personal and professional data, the form asks the claimants to detail how their health was damaged during the incarceration period and to provide a narrative listing of the physical injuries with approximate time periods. The claimant's current physician was asked to answer questions regarding the claimant's physical harm while interned, timing of the injury, and what treatments the claimant is currently receiving. Lastly, the forms inquired about insurance information: the company currently providing benefits, the nature of the medical complaint, and its relation to incarceration.

The Schaden an Freiheit, the "C" form, is used for claims based on "deprivation of freedom," the result of having one's freedoms curtailed or limited by the Nazis. Similar general questions to the "A" and "B" forms are asked: when and where death occurred and which Nazi crimes were causes of deprivations. Background information is requested including the education of the victim; personal and professional information for the claimant; witnesses' statements made under oath; specifics of bodily and health damages of persecuted individual; current situation of persecuted person; and specifics about the individual who lost or was limited in freedom of movement. The form also inquires as to when claimants began wearing the yellow Star of David and when they were placed in living conditions considered inhumane, including ghettos and camps established by the Nazis. A request is made for a list of names of relatives and friends who had lived with the claimant and had also lost their freedoms, and who also may be seeking compensation and restitution. A small number of files also contain photographs.

The Subseries: Jewelry, Brown, Green, and Pink

The Jewelry series—44 boxes, about 22 linear feet—consists of claims regarding stolen or confiscated jewelry, gold, silver, and some artwork. This series would be of interest to researchers investigating Nazi gold and other looted wealth. These claims were made at restitution offices throughout Germany. Many of these case files have limited information since it was difficult to prove ownership of property. Pieces of jewelry and other valuable objects are described, although monetary value is difficult to assess. The Brown series—12 boxes, about 6 linear feet—includes restitution claims filed in Frankfurt am Main, Stuttgart, and Munich. These files include survivor and witness statements, indemnification claims, Red Cross forms, and correspondence between the claimant and the URO representatives in both Toronto and Germany. In this series, the majority of the claims seem to be on the "C" form relating to the deprivation of freedoms.

The Pink series—31 boxes, about 15 linear feet—consists of claims filed in Cologne, and like that of the Brown and Green series, includes unspecified claims although most seem to be seeking restitution for health damages. The Green series—109 boxes, approximately 55 linear feet—is restitution claims filed in Frankfurt, Berlin, and Rhineland-Pfalz. The "A," "B," and "C" forms all appear in this subseries. Claims include the names of concentration camps' inmates who were forced to perform slave labor for German firms, reports from sanitariums regarding claimants' health and recommendations for recovery, doctors' and witnesses' statements, and additional correspondence regarding the filed claim.

Creation of the Archives' Finding Aid and Its Database

After the collection arrived, an archives intern began creating a name index following the original name order appearing on the folders. This initial name index, consisting only of first and last names, and maiden names where applicable, became the collection's finding aid. Subseries and box locations were provided as headers.

At the same time, the archives staff member began the long process of rehousing the case files into an acid-free environment. Due to the total size of the collection, only the folders and boxes were changed and very limited holdings maintenance was completed. Over the next several years, with the collection being stored in the museum's basement, the existing storage space became an issue, and since the collection was not used on a regular basis, it was decided to send the entire collection off-site. Since the URO collection was not going to expand, shifting of the collection was completed and permanent locations were assigned.

Once the collection was moved , the archives staff soon realized that the finding aid was incomplete and lacked correct location designations. The names on the claims did not always match the folder header and thus did not match the name index. Nor were spelling variations listed on the index. Lastly, in many cases, there were numerous case files with the same first and last name, and only after examining each case file's contents could one decipher the correct name by looking at the birth date. (Birth dates were not listed on the initial name index.) By looking at the existing finding aid, it was difficult to figure out if the case file was in the correct box, let alone the correct subseries. In many cases, the requested case file was not in the listed location. For example, numerous times the BEG series begins an alphabetical order by last name, stops in the middle of the run only to begin another alphabetical run, and then the first would pick up again making the second incomplete. Locating files became quite confusing and time consuming.

The archives staff decided to prepare a major new finding aid, both in print and in electronic format so that staff could search by keywords in numerous data fields. The new electronic finding aid includes the full name of claimant appearing on the official forms, including any variations in spelling; maiden names; birth and death dates; city and/or country of birth; and, most important, the correct range, shelf, and box location of each case file.

This finding aid now allows for efficient collection management and easy access to the data for staff members. An advantage to using the program is that it allows searching by any field, such as a last name or maiden name. Reports can also be created, such as a list of all those claimants who were born in Warsaw, Poland, or those files in a specific box within a specific subseries. For the archives, the most important part of this project was to be able to enter a name and note the series, the range, the shelf, and the box location. An unspecified note field was also included.

The project lasted for over a year—the archives technician had to examine each case file, extract data from the forms and correspondence, and enter the information into a database—but all of the time spent on it became invaluable. Whereas it once took almost an hour to find several case files, the archivist can now locate files electronically, note the location, and retrieve the files within minutes. At this time, unfortunately, the project has been placed on hold due to personnel changes and other departmental priorities. Only about two-thirds of the Toronto office collection was completed, and the Los Angeles and the Dutch Restitution offices are currently not included in this name index.

The URO collection is historically valuable—especially the testimonies included on the claim forms, which were recorded during the immediate postwar period and thus contain details unavailable elsewhere. These historically rich memoirs continue to provide testimony to what happened during the Holocaust and to ensure that future generations will not forget.

—Anne Rothfeld, former archives technician at the U.S. Holocaust Museum Archives, currently is the archivist and historian at the U.S. Mint and a historical studies graduate student at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. She would like to dedicate this article to the memory of Robert W. Kesting, historian, former archivist at the Holocaust Museum, mentor. She also extends thanks to Brewster Chamberlin, former director of the Holocaust Museum Archives, and to Daniel Ritschel, University of Maryland, Baltimore County, who graciously edited the article several times during his summer vacation. Lastly, she thanks her daughter Laura for her patience.

Notes

1. Norman Bentwich, International Aspects of Restitution and Compensation for Victims of the Nazis, reprinted from The British Year Book of International Law, 1955–56 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, [1956?]), 204. "It is estimated by an American economist, who made a comprehensive analysis, that the total value of Jewish property confiscated or robbed was $12 billion.." Norman Bentwich, The United Restitution Organization, 1948–1968: The Work of Restitution and Compensation for Victims of Nazi Oppression (London: Vallentine, Mitchell, [1968?]), 7.

2. Bentwich, International Aspects, 204. Legislation describing and detailing the difference between compensation and restitution was necessary since the "National Socialist regime had.violated in an unparalleled way fundamental principles of natural law and the rights of man in relation to its own subjects, and.had violated during the war in relation to the peoples of the occupied countries the accepted rules of international law concerning the rights of a military occupant." Bentwich, International Aspects, 205.

3. Bentwich, International Aspects, 204. "Generally, private property of the Nazi victims was socialized. As regards compensation, the Soviet Military Government, and subsequently the Democratic Republic of Eastern Germany, gave benefits to the victims of Nazi persecution who were resident in the territory, but they would not pay compensation to persons who had left the territory. An amendment of the Compensation Law of the Federal Republic enacted in June 1956 provides for payment of compensation to former inhabitants of the Eastern Zone and the Eastern sector of Berlin who are now resident in the Western Zone or abroad.." Bentwich, International Aspects, 205.

4. The URO was collectively created by the Council of Jews who turned to the American Joint Distribution Committee, the Jewish Agency for Palestine, and the Central British Fund for Jewish Relief and Rehabilitation to establish legal offices to aid Holocaust survivors. The first offices were established in Israel, the United States, France, Britain, West Germany, and allied occupied zones of Berlin.

5. The Bundestag passed two other pieces of legislation on Holocaust compensation and restitution: the Hardship Fund and Article 2. The Hardship Fund provided support for those Jews living in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe who could apply for compensation and restitution only after the end of Communism. By the time these claimants had emigrated to the West, the BEG filing period had expired. The Article 2 Fund, the most restrictive of the three, was established in September 1990 under the East and West Germany Unification Treaty. Those victims who are eligible for compensation had to meet certain requirements, including six months or longer in a concentration camp; 18 months or longer in a ghetto or in hiding; has made no previous compensation claim; and is currently in a difficult financial situation. Source: "German Compensation for National Socialist Crimes." Prepared by the U.S. Department of State, provided by the Foreign Claims Settlement Committee of the U.S. Department of Justice, via <http://www.ushmm.org>, accessed November 30, 1998. The collapse of communism in the USSR and East Europe in the last decade has thus created an entirely new set of claims for the URO to administer. Files on these recent claims, however, were not included in the collection under discussion here.

6. Lorraine Adams, "The Reckoning," The Washington Post Magazine (20April 1997), 13.

7. Adams, 10. Bentwich cites dollar amounts for compensation, which is "distinct from restitution" by year, 1949–52 then 1953 through 1968, totaling over 450,000 processed claims at $547,000,000. "The number of cases pending when the system was introduced was roughly 100,000. The number increased steadily, and reached its peak on June 30, 1958, when the cases pending were 220,000. Thereafter the figures declined, but rose again when the Final Law, Schlussgesetz, was passed in 1965. On December 31, 1967, they were still nearly 100,000. The number of claimants represented by URO reached its peak in the same period, when it stood at 125,000. At the end of 1968 they numbered 73,000. Most had more than one claim. In its totality URO has represented not less than 300,000 victims of persecution, with a total of over 450,000 claims." Bentwich further adds "that the payment is 10 years, and the additional sum of $153,000,000 should be added to cover this difference, as well as the current pensions (annuities) paid to the claimants directly up to 1968. That brings the total value of the awards to $700,000,000..The value of the awards for restitution of immovable and movable property amounts to another $40 million. It is estimated that roughly one-third of these awards have been made to claimants whose home is in Israel." Bentwich, The United Restitution Organization, 31–32.

8. Today, after additional negotiations, the URO collection's researcher's agreement states that "The USHMC (United States Holocaust Memorial Council) will provide access to the case files to bona fide scholars and researchers with the understanding that the names of the individuals in the files will not be published or otherwise made public by the researcher until 50 years after the date of the last document in the file, or until proof of the individual's death is verified by the research or the USHMC. Any photocopies of the materials from the case files provided by USHMC to researchers will have the names of the individuals in the files deleted/inked out to protect the privacy of the individual unless the conditions stipulated in para 2 above [the paragraph directly above] have been met." The URO Collection Research Agreement. (The United Restitution Organization Collection, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Archives, Washington, D.C.)