Did Nazi Loot End Up At The Vatican Bank?

Balkan victims level new allegations

With the recent publication of the scathing indictment of Pope Pius XII, the bestselling Hitler's Pope, the Eternal City has been bombed with bad publicity of late. More is on the way. A recently filed lawsuit alleges that during Hitler's reign, the Vatican Bank received at least 200 million Swiss francs from Hitler's wartime puppet Ustasha regime--money the Nazi collaborators allegedly looted from Jews, Ukranians, Serbs, and others. This opens up the possibility that after the Swiss banks, the Vatican Bank could be the next big target.

The class action, headed up by attorney Keelyn Friesen at Minneapolis law firm Zimmerman Reed, involves some 2,000 plaintiffs who are seeking an accounting of the purported funds as well as restitution that could amount to $200 million. The claim also names as yet unidentified Swiss, Austrian, Argentine, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, and German banking institutions, where plaintiffs' lawyers say some of the plunder may have been routed to help Nazi war criminals escape to Argentina.

The suit relies on once-classified documents from various countries that have been made public in recent years, as well as a 1998 U.S. government report issued by Commerce Under Secretary Stuart Eizenstat. Some of the report's most damning evidence appears in a 1946 intelligence memo from a U.S. Treasury agent named Emerson Bigelow who states that Swiss francs were "held in the Vatican for safekeeping." Two U.S. Presidential commissions are set to release new information, which could shed light on Vatican activities.

Father Remi Huckmann, the Vatican's executive secretary for the Holy See's Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, told BUSINESS WEEK he had no knowledge of the case. The Vatican has consistently denied allegations of receiving Nazi gold and said its internal review showed no trace of such funds.

One of the reasons the Vatican has been criticized is that it refuses to open its archives as others have done. But the Vatican is eager to resolve the controversy over the beatification of Pope Pius XII, who some scholars say could have done more to avert the Holocaust. In November, it finally appointed a new panel of Jewish and Christian scholars to review already published materials. But, says Jewish panelist Michael Marrus of the University of Toronto, "until there is full disclosure you are likely to see lawsuits."

That's what plaintiff George Zivkovich, an orphaned death-camp survivor from the Balkans, wants. Hitler's henchmen set Zivkovich's grandfather, a wealthy Eastern Orthodox trader, on fire and confiscated his two-story marble home. "I want the blood money that was given to the Vatican to be returned," says Zivkovich, 63, now living in Barstow, Calif.

Much hinges on whether the Vatican will release its archives. Until then, survivors won't let it rest.

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