Miriam and Me: The Beginnings of an Archival Adventure and Friendship in 1996

Today’s post is written by Dr. Greg Bradsher, Archivist at the National Archives at College Park.

For the past twelve years most people who have had dealings with Miriam Kleiman at the National Archives know that she is a public affairs specialist. It is probable that they do not know that her association with the National Archives began twenty years ago, in March 1996 as a researcher. Her early involvement helped to launch a quest for justice regarding Holocaust-Era Assets and would impact many institutions and lives, including the National Archives and Records Administration and mine.

GB and MK for WP 1998

The author and Miriam Kleiman (Washington Post, 1998)

The story begins in early 1996 when:

WJC [World Jewish Congress] President Edgar Bronfman asked [Senate Banking Committee Chairman Senator] D’Amato to apply pressure on Switzerland to open its banking files. Bronfman…was trying to jump-start talks that collapsed in 1995 after Swiss bankers told Jewish leaders that a new search of bank records netted only 774 missing accounts. The bankers offered $32 million to settle all old claims, but Bronfman spurned the offer, convinced that there were more accounts.

D’Amato asked the CIA, the State Department and the Treasury Department for all files pertinent to Jewish holdings in Switzerland. The agencies said the files were in the National Archives. (The Los Angeles Times (Washington Edition, November 25, 1996) in a Stephen Braun piece entitled “Bitter Secrets and a Cache of Gold.”)

Let’s continue by letting Miriam tell the story of what happened next in her own words, written in remarks prepared for the annual Society of American Archivists meeting in 1999:

Frustrated by unproductive talks with Swiss banking officials, the World Jewish Congress turned to Senate Banking Committee Chairman Alfonse D’Amato for assistance. On February 23, 1996 Senator D’Amato wrote US Archivist John Carlin, requesting archival information on dormant assets from the Holocaust in Swiss banks.

Assistant Archivist Dr. Michael Kurtz responded three weeks later, writing: “We regret that we cannot undertake the extensive research necessary to identify the exact documents which interest you. We will be pleased to assist your representatives in using our finding aids and to make pertinent records available in our College Park research room.” The Senator’s office suggested that the World Jewish Congress pursue this lead. Not having a Washington office, the WJC needed a local researcher.

This is where my role comes in… I was called and asked if I had time to do a short research project at the National Archives — expected to last two days to one week. I accepted, and was sent to meet with Gregg Rickman on March 21. Gregg gave me the letter from Dr. Kurtz, and offered the tip: “Safehaven, explore Safehaven…”

[Bradsher: The Safehaven Program, begun in 1944, was a United States-led effort to investigate German assets that had found a “safehaven” in the neutral countries and Latin America]

Miriam, at the time she met with Gregg Rickman in Senator D’Amato’s office, had been in Washington, D.C., since June 1989. She had just earned a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Michigan and had found employment in the office of Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich. Later she worked at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and then joined the American Jewish Committee. In February 1996 she left her job with the latter organization and was now unemployed.

Jane Schapiro in her book Inside a Class Action: The Holocaust and the Swiss Banks (Madison, Wisconsin: The University of Wisconsin Press, 2003) continues Miriam’s story at this point:

Kleiman was twenty-eight and single. Originally from Cleveland, she had been drawn to Washington. She believed in the power of politics and the ‘rightness’ of certain causes. Washington was the political vortex, and she had wanted to be swept into it.

When she first arrived in Washington, she had gotten a job with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee as a research analyst. The idea of combining Jewish issues and politics had excited her. After six years of working with that combination she had become disillusioned with the politics, and she promised herself that her next job would involve ‘nothing Jewish’ and ‘nothing with Capitol Hill.’ Other than those two conditions she was open to anything.

Although she had told herself that she was done with Capitol Hill she couldn’t rid herself of it in her personal life. She had been dating a legislative aide for several months, and the relationship was becoming more serious. While she wanted to stay in Washington, she was confused as to what she would do.

Extremely friendly, she was an attractive brunette with a sarcastic wit. Packed with nervous energy, she talked incessantly, flitting from one story to another in rapid succession. People were entertained by her humor and enthusiasm, as well as by her idealism. Unlike many young arrivals to Washington, she had not yet lost her sense of mission. She just didn’t know what her next one would be.

In March, just one month after leaving her job, she received a call from Doug Bloomfield, another former Clevelander. Bloomfield was a Washington consultant to the WJC. He had heard that she was looking for a job and thought that he might be able to offer her something very temporary. Was she aware of the Swiss banks and the Holocaust dormant accounts? Senator D’Amato wanted to try to find more documentation on the topic and had written to the U.S. National Archives in College Park, Maryland. The WJC was also interested in researching the topic. The organization could hire her as a researcher for two days. He suggested that she meet with D’Amato’s legislative director, Gregg Rickman. He was the one in charge of D’Amato’s bank inquiry.

Although she was skeptical about reentering the world of Capitol Hill, she went to Rickman’s office. She immediately felt at home with the senator’s young assistant. Not only was he Jewish, he was a former Clevelander.

During the past few months, Rickman had been listening to survivors’ stories. His own father-in-law was a survivor. He had come to believe that the Swiss bankers were criminals who must be brought to justice. D’Amato and the WJC could make that happen. All they needed were the proper weapons.

He showed her a letter that he had received from Dr. Michael Kurtz, assistant archivist at the U.S. National Archives. Kurtz was responding to Richman’s inquiry as to whether the archives might have information about Swiss Holocaust dormant accounts….Kurtz wasn’t sure what there was exactly, but he offered one suggestion: Rickman should begin by researching Operation Safehaven.

….Kurtz told Rickman that researching Operation Safehaven would take only a few days. To Rickman, a few days seemed a small price to pay for a smoking gun.

Kleiman could not resist Rickman’s idealistic enthusiasm. This wasn’t a job but an historic opportunity. Two days later, they entered the…National Archives facility at College Park. Although Rickman was researching for Senator D’Amato, and Kleiman for the WJC, they both believed that they were working toward the same objective: to find evidence of Holocaust-era dormant accounts held by Swiss banks.

Miriam continues with her 1999 version of events:

My first day of work at the National Archives II was on March 23, 1996. Although I had research experience, I had never set foot in an archive. I met with a few archivists and started with a cart of 13 boxes from the Office of the Judge Advocate General, War Crimes Branch. On my second day of research, I found a 1945 US intelligence report from Switzerland, on the Societe General de Surveillance, which served in a banking capacity during the war. Noting that the main depositors were Jews, the report listed accounts of 182 depositors from 9 countries, people with names such as Leopold Lustig, Arion Samuel, Isaac Feldstein, Solomon Shapiro, and Maurice Moishe Rothman.

Fold3_Page_81_Safehaven_Reports_of_the_War_Crimes_Branch_19441945 cropped

Savehaven Report, July 12, 1945 (https://www.fold3.com/image/312769657)

A Cleveland newspaper (Tom Brazaitis, “Digging for Gold,” The Plain Dealer, June 1, 1997) reported what happened next:

Kleiman couldn’t afford a car on her researcher salary, so she boarded a shuttle bus to the main archives in downtown Washington. After a 45-minute ride, she took a cab to Rickmann’s office. All the while she was thinking about the documents she had found that day. Could they be important?

Almost an hour after leaving the archives complex in Maryland, Kleiman rushed into Rickmann’s office to show him the documents [Bradsher: needless to say, copies she had made at College Park].

‘Oh my God,’ Rickman said as he leafed through a half-dozen pages of names, listing accounts in various currencies.

To determine the worth of the various currencies listed in today’s dollars, he sent the document to the Congressional Research Service of the Library of Congress. Experts there estimated the Jewish accounts in this single document would be worth $20 million. Up to that point the Swiss were insisting they could find no more than $32 million dormant accounts, and not all belonged to Holocaust victims or survivors. Yet here was $20 million in a single document. There had to be more, Rickmann suspected.

‘We had no idea we’d find something so significant in the first week,’ he says. D’Amato’s office leaked the news of the document to the media and called for congressional hearings on April 23, just one month after the search had begun.

Excited by Kleiman’s discovery, Rickman rushed to assign an intern to work full time with her at the archives complex. Rickman, too, began to drive out to the complex to help go through the documents.

‘We realized we were on to something and it became very, very exciting,’ Kleiman says. ‘It was like a spy novel unfolding before us.’

Miriam continues with her 1999 story:

I immediately rushed to Capitol Hill to share this information with Gregg Rickman. Added and adjusted for interest and inflation, the amount totaled over $25 million dollars — and these accounts were as yet unclaimed, the report stated. This was at a time when the Swiss Bank Association said that only $32 million dollars existed in ALL dormant accounts from the war. This report showed that such information — historical proof of unclaimed assets in Switzerland — could be found in US archival records.

Our search continued. One month later, in April, 1996, the Senate Banking Committee held its first hearing on this issue. Research teams from law firms representing the Swiss banks showed up at Archives, and the press followed. To insure equal access and information to all, Greg Bradsher issued a Safehaven “finding aid” — under 10 pages long. Now, this finding aid is a collector’s item, as the latest version is 1,166 pages!

Now that my name is mentioned, it might be worthwhile to explain how I met Miriam and how I became involved. In early April, when I was an assistant chief of the Reference Branch at the National Archives at College Park (Archives II), a colleague came into my office and asked whether I knew anything about the records of the Foreign Funds Control, as a researcher was asking about their availability. I answered that I did, as a decade earlier I had appraised them when they were located in the Washington National Records Center. We went to our finding aids and found that the records had been recently accessioned and they, as I remembered, contained a wealth about the Swiss banks and the Safehaven Program. After this I went back to work, little thinking about who the researcher was and why the records were wanted. But I became curious and decided to talk to the researcher about the records.

Schapiro, in her Inside a Class Action, continues the story:

Bradsher, a fast talker himself met his match with Kleiman. She explained what she was doing and how this was going to be a big issue because she had found a document that she had let D’Amato know about and that he was going to have hearings and the press was very interested and Bradsher had better get prepared for an onslaught of researchers.

What she had told me I really did not want to hear, particularly if she was correct about an onslaught of researchers. At the time I had more than enough to do in my regular job, as well as being a member of The Archivist’s Strategic Directions Team, a member of the Information Products Working Group, chair of the Archives II Reference Study Group, and the Contractor’s Officer Technical Representative for Reproduction Orders, to have to deal with the press and researchers involved in complex archival, historical, legal, and moral issues.

My first inkling that Miriam was correct about public interest in the issue of Jewish-owned dormant accounts in Swiss banks came with the April 15, 1996 issue of U.S. News & World Report in an article entitled “D’Amato: Awash in secret documents.” An abstract of this article reads: “A secret cache of US intelligence documents may hold the answers to the location of what could be billions of dollars deposited in Swiss banks by victims of the Holocaust or stolen from them by the Nazis.”

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To be pro-active to the possibility of increased researcher interest in the issues Miriam was explaining to me, I produced a 10-page finding aid to relevant records, including those involving the Safehaven Program. I figured if I had most everything listed, that every time someone asked us about the subject, we could just give them a copy of the finding aid, and be done with it. As it turns out, I greatly miscalculated the quantity of pertinent records, the scope of the inquiries into Holocaust-Era assets issues, and the number of researchers and the media asking for information and records.

The researchers, and the media after them, began, as Miriam predicted, coming to Archives II.  As the Cleveland newspaper mentioned above observed:

After the first Senate hearing revealed the existence of numerous unexamined documents, the archives hummed with activity. The [Rickman-Kleiman] team of researchers expanded to include an expert on the German archives and a dozen interns from the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington.

The Swiss government, embarrassed by the publicity the documents were receiving, sent its own researchers to examine the archive trail. So did Swiss bankers and researchers from Sweden and other countries named in the documents.

‘Banking is the mainstay of Switzerland’s economy and their reputation was on the line,’ Kleiman says. ‘They wanted to see firsthand what people were finding.’

In 1997, in writing about the researcher interest, I observed:

The trickle of researchers that began in March became a small stream after the Senate Banking Committee held hearings on Nazi looted assets and the Swiss bank accounts of the victims of the Holocaust in April 1996. It was not too long afterwards that researchers representing Senator D’Amato, the World Jewish Congress, and the Swiss Bankers Association had found a home at College Park. And others followed, so that by mid-summer the small stream had become a river. On any given day during the summer of 1996 the College Park research room had between 15 and 25 researchers doing research in, what the staff termed: the “Nazi Gold” records. And what had actually begun as a quest for information on Jewish Assets in Swiss banks quickly broadened to include Nazi looted gold in Switzerland, Sweden, Spain, Portugal, Argentina, and Turkey. (from Searching for Records Relating to Nazi Gold Part I)

During the summer I constantly went into the research room to see Miriam and the other researchers. I was interested in what records they were using and what information they were uncovering. Then, every week or two, I would produce a new finding aid, go to the bulk copier and make six sets, and then pass them out to the researchers. Month by month the size of the finding aid increased. Miriam and I would constantly discuss our latest discoveries. In a way for both of us, it was a treasure hunt. But, we also knew the story of the Swiss banks was one that involved victims of the Holocaust; so it was more than a treasure hunt; it was a case of turning history into justice, and the holdings of the National Archives were paramount to justice being achieved.

Kleiman continues:

Using this finding aid as a guide, we explored the records of OMGUS, OSS, Treasury, State Department, and Foreign Funds Control. As we tackled box after box, it was fascinating to read more about Safehaven, and to see the myth of Swiss neutrality unravel. We learned that Switzerland supplied the Nazi regime with foreign exchange and war materials, and continued this trade long after any real threat of invasion. In the words of a 1945 Treasury Department memo, “as late as April 1945, the Swiss were in cahoots with the Germans.”

In the summer of 1996, the German magazine Der Spiegel noted the importance of our discoveries and our College Park research efforts: “The avalanche of slime from the archives is threatening to bring the entire Swiss banking center, today number one in the world, into lasting disrepute.”

At the National Archives, we learned about West Virginia Senator Harley Kilgore, who chaired the Senate Military Affairs Committee in 1945. We found that his Committee, the so-called “Kilgore Committee” discovered that Swiss banks had purchased looted gold from Germany, and concluded that “These moves were made possible by the willingness of the Swiss government and banking officials… to make a secret deal with the Nazis.” While it may sound cliche to cite this phrase to a group of archivists, “What is past is prologue.” 50 years later, there were similar hearings, investigations, and even similar Swiss press reports.

The Los Angeles Times (Washington Edition, November 25, 1996) in a Stephen Braun piece entitled “Bitter Secrets and a Cache of Gold,” noted:

Every morning researchers troop into the sun-puddled reading rooms of Washington’s National Archives [College Park]. They trudge out hours later briefcases clogged with gray photocopies of old letters, position papers, internal memorandums from so long ago,

The researchers wage a quiet war for information, a competition that shapes legal maneuvers and publicity battles in New York and Washington. Brussels and Bern. Germany.

World Jewish Congress volunteers and aides to Senate Banking…Chairman Alfonse M. D’Amato (R-N.Y.) spread out over several carrels [Bradsher: now the consultation rooms]. Swiss bank researchers sit at another table. Nearby State Department historians, lawyers and [Professor Richard] Brietman’s students plumb the files

‘Almost everything we’ve learned comes from the documents,’ said Gregg J. Rickman, a D’Amato aide.

….The files, depicted as bombshells each time they are made public by D’Amato and WJC officials have had a devastating impact. Swiss bankers have hired a public relations team to counter each broadside. And the files are energizing Holocaust survivors and relatives. More than 1,000 have written the Swiss, claiming missing accounts.

‘Even if all we’re left with is questions,’ said Kleiman, ‘at least they’re finally being asked.’

Jane Schapiro, in Inside a Class Action, describes Miriam as the summer of 1996 was ending:

By September 1996 Kleiman was a nervous wreck. She was working day and night and was still getting paid only hourly. She loved what she was doing, but she wanted more stability. What she thought would be a day or two of research had turned into six months’ work. With little money and no job security, she found herself in the same position she had been in six months earlier.

Miriam finally told Rickman that she could not keep going and would have to leave. Rickman offered a lead that would have Miriam going to work as a researcher with a Washington, D.C. law firm that was bringing a class action lawsuit against the Swiss bankers.

In October 1996, President Bill Clinton appointed Stuart E. Eizenstat, then Under Secretary of Commerce for International Trade, to head an eleven-member Interagency Group on Nazi Assets. The group, which I joined on October 31, was tasked with writing a report about what the United States government knew and did during and after the war about Nazi looted assets. I was asked by Dr. William Z. Slany, the Department of State’s Chief Historian, who was to draft the group’s report, to compile an exhaustive finding aid.

Despite both Miriam and I having new roles to play, I knew that for at least the foreseeable future our fates were linked. I could not help but to think of the last scene of the movie Casablanca where Rick says to Louis “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

P.S. In August 1998, a historic, unprecedented $1.25 billion settlement was reached in the Swiss Banks case.


Resources:

Holocaust-Era Assets Main Page at the National Archives with link to the Holocaust-Era Assets Finding Aid.

Safehaven Reports, 1944-1945 (NAID 595386) War Department. Office of the Judge Advocate General. War Crimes Office. Record Group 153.

 

 

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14 Responses to Miriam and Me: The Beginnings of an Archival Adventure and Friendship in 1996

  1. Miriam Kleiman says:

    Greg – thank you for making my research and indeed my career possible! I appreciate this beautiful blog and what is indeed a beautiful friendship. Blog readers – stay tuned for my “Ode to Greg” response!

    Like

  2. Great, great post! I did not know about Miriam’s work/research on the Holocaust era assets! Many, many lives impacted for the better with these long-awaited discoveries.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Miriam Kleiman says:

      Thanks so much, Kathleen. Clearly, you’ve never made the mistake of asking me: “How did you get started at the National Archives?” I feel lucky to work here, and to have “promote NARA to the world” as my job!

      Like

      • Morgan Zinsmeister says:

        Miriam—just beaming here with pride my friend! You were way too modest telling me about the project, what an incredible story!

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  3. Miriam Kleiman says:

    Thanks, Morgan, for your kind words! And please know how much our office appreciates your (and your colleagues’) willingness to share your important conservation work with the press! So many great stories here.

    Like

  4. Hank Feingold says:

    Miriam, we need more people like you. Nice going. Hank Feingold, US Navy League

    Like

  5. Stefanie Hutchins says:

    Fascinating! Thanks for sharing this story.

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  6. Diane Dimkoff says:

    Miriam and Greg-Congrats on a great blog. Proud to know both of you!

    Like

  7. J. Calvin Jefferson says:

    Great Post Greg! I remember those days well.

    Like

  8. Dave Lake says:

    Thanks, Greg. I remember pulling records for the team when that effort started, and also have been fortunate to get to know Miriam all these years since. What a great story.

    Like

  9. Cecil Proctor says:

    Always glad to see the positive impact NARA’s records provide.

    Great Job to all who were named and not named in this article who made this possible!

    Like

    • Greg Bradsher says:

      Cecil, NARA, its staff and holdings, were greatly appreciated by Miriam and the government and non-governmental researchers who used our textual research room back in 1996 and early 1997. On May 7, 1997, the Interagency Group on Nazi Assets, headed by Ambassador Eizenstat, issued its report entitled U.S. and Allied Efforts to Recover and Restore Gold and Other Assets Stolen or Hidden by Germany During World War II: Preliminary Study. The report, based primarily on NARA’s holdings, was quite critical of the Swiss and the other World War II neutrals. The author of the report acknowledged NARA’s contributions to the completion of the report. In his 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.” Senator D’Amato on the floor of the Senate on June 19, 1997 said “The National Archives at College Park has been nothing less than amazing. The staff has gone out of their way to provide our researchers with help, including declassification, record and document locations, use of their facilities, overall access to the building and records, and the wisdom, and advice of the gifted archivists. Put all together, their help was indispensable in establishing, continuing and expanding the research of the [Senate Banking] Committee.” Greg

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  10. Andrea says:

    I met Miriam at Archives II during this time, and was also struck by her enthusiasm and humor. And I remember her bringing in cookies to sweeten the work of the staff helping. : )

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  11. Greg Bradsher says:

    Andrea, You are absolutely correct about the cookies. I know that Mr. John Taylor always looked forward to visits by Miriam, even if she did not bring cookies to him. But, of course, the cookies certainly made the visits sweeter. Greg

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