WASHINGTON — Two months after a comprehensive U.S. study severely criticized Switzerland and several other neutral countries for dealing in gold plundered by Nazis during World War II, a U.S. government document came to light for the first time Tuesday containing evidence that links the Vatican with such dealings.
The 1946 Treasury Department document states that the Nazi puppet regime in Croatia, the Ustashe, smuggled about 350 million Swiss francs (about $295 million at today's prices) out of Yugoslavia "where Jews and Serbs were plundered to support the Ustashe organization in exile," apparently during the Third Reich's final months. The document said that "approximately 200 million [francs, valued today at $170 million] was originally held in the Vatican for safekeeping."
The document goes on to cite a rumor that much of this money was later funneled to Spain and Argentina through what it termed the "Vatican's pipeline" to finance the lifestyles of fleeing Nazis.
In Rome, chief Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls dismissed the document's validity. "There is no basis in reality to the report," he said, adding that the account was based on an anonymous source "whose reliability is more than dubious."
In the United States, however, Jewish organizations hailed the find as important.
"This is an extremely significant development that fits into the pattern of the Nazi gold question," said Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress. "It is a pattern that involved not just Switzerland and other neutral countries, but, according to U.S. intelligence documents, went into the heart of the Holy See."
Steinberg urged the Vatican to open its archives and establish an independent commission to study its role in the Nazi gold trade.
Although declassified late last year along with about 1 million other pages of previously unavailable government records on the matter, the document apparently escaped the notice of those who compiled a U.S. government study that traced the flow of Nazi gold.
Instead, the document was discovered by researchers from the A&E cable television network after they had completed a documentary on the Nazi gold issue.
The document purporting the Vatican link is a letter from a Treasury Department civil servant named Emerson Bigelow. He was apparently passing on a field intelligence report to his superior, Harold Glasser, identified as the department's director of monetary research. It cites "a reliable source in Italy" as the report's origin.
U.S. government officials say the information originated from the Office of Strategic Services, the nation's prime intelligence group late in World War II.
Donald Steury, who wrote sections of the recent Nazi gold report that drew from secret intelligence documents, described Bigelow as "a coordinating individual" who sifted and passed upward information from intelligence sources at a time when the Treasury was deeply involved in "Operation Safe Haven," the post-World War II attempt to track Nazi loot.
Steury described the use of "reliable source" as standard wording and added that the validity of the Vatican link could be accurately assessed only if the identity of the source becomes known.