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U.S. firms in Holocaust spotlight

To what extent did American companies fail Hitler’s victims?

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WASHINGTON — The international reckoning over evils of the Holocaust is about to come home to America.

The country that would prefer to be known more for its World War II heroism will take its turn in examining how some in corporate America and official Washington also failed Hitler's victims.

"There are things that have to be faced up to," said Elan Steinberg, World Jewish Congress executive director.

In four years of lawsuits, soul-searching, revelations and arm-twisting, the United States has led in promoting Holocaust truth-telling. And it has helped Jewish groups wrest billions of dollars from European governments and companies and institutions that profited from Nazi Germany.

That includes Swiss banks that hid Holocaust victims' money, European insurers with unpaid policies held by victims and German companies that used slave labor.

In the coming weeks, Jewish organizations plan to push for payments from dozens of America's oldest and best-known corporations — some still not named publicly — who they accuse of using forced labor. They also want to see company archives.

"It's their turn," said Steinberg. "American companies were collaborating with Nazi Germany at a time when we were at war, because there was an ethos that demanded huge profits at the expense of everything else."

At the same time, a presidential panel will report on what the government did with jewelry, art and other valuables that were stolen from Holocaust victims and came under U.S. control before, during or after the war. Separate inquiries of American business and government have been long planned. It's just coincidence they are coming together now.

The presidential panel has collected information on government handling of assets for two years and promised its report in mid-October. Government officials have held talks in recent months with some companies on how to meet forced-labor claims.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce announced May 1 that it would organize a Holocaust fund. But it hasn't received a single pledge, and officials say the effort is stalled on individual companies' legal and public image concerns.

"We're trying to do the right thing," said the chamber's Stephen Jordan.

With 1,000 aging survivors dying each month, Jewish organizations say they'll appeal directly to corporations.

"We are looking at this as an issue to bring up with these companies in September, and we intend to bring it up very firmly and very decisively," said Gideon Taylor of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany.

"The issue is really whether America companies will face up to their historical responsibility in a way that is moral and proper," Taylor said.