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Coming to Terms with the Holocaust: Money, Memory, Politics

Time:2015-11-29 16:37 Source:未知 Writer:cjss read:
Coming to Terms with the Holocaust: Money, Memory, Politics and Responsibility
Rabbi Andrew Baker
 
Presentation to the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences
November 17, 2015
 
As with individuals, so to with a collective group the response to severe trauma is rarely a calm and calculated assessment of damage and redress. Such was certainly the case with the Holocaust—the systematic looting and murder of a third of world Jewry by the Nazis and their collaborators.
 
When the war ended European nations—both victors and vanquished—were engaged in their own reconstruction and political recovery. Few were willing to pay any special attention to those Jewish victims, despite their unique suffering. The advent of the Cold War added another dimension to the challenge. Even the limited efforts to purge post-war Germany of Nazis came to a halt, as the newly-established Federal Republic of Germany became the front line in the West’s confrontation with the Soviet Union. 
 
Meanwhile, the USSR had its own means of dealing with Nazi collaborators, returning prisoners of war and many others. All Soviet citizens had suffered, and there would be no singling out of any special group. Over 1.5 million Jews in the Soviet Union were murdered—rounded up, shot to death and buried in mass graves close by the cities, towns and villages where they had lived. The Germans were frequently assisted by local collaborators. Many of these graves have remained unmarked until this day. 
 
While some notable collaborators in Western Europe may have been publicly shamed and punished, many others avoided punishment. Collaboration in the deeds of the Holocaust may not have been treated as severely as was collaboration with the wartime enemy. There were certainly many, many people who benefited from the systematic looting of Jewish property, and few felt any guilt in doing so.
 
Jewish survivors often found it hard to return to their prewar homes—where such homes still existed. In some places entire towns or villages were destroyed. Elsewhere, those homes were occupied and their contents taken. In some Polish towns these returning Jewish refugees faced organized physical attacks. In the city of Amsterdam former Jewish residents were presented with tax bills covering the time they had spent in concentration camps. 
 
The vast majority of Jewish survivors—particularly those from Eastern Europe—chose to leave for Israel or America to rebuild lives far from what had become essentially a vast Jewish cemetery. They did not seek nor did they receive any special privileges for their suffering in these two countries, only the opportunity to start over. 
 
Throughout the West nearly a generation would pass before their special trauma was truly recognized and countries began to evaluate and assess their respective roles in the Holocaust. 
 
The exception of course was Germany itself, which could not escape its role as the perpetrator of the crimes. In 1952 the newly formed Federal Republic negotiated the first reparation agreements with the new State of Israel and with the Jewish Claims Conference, an umbrella organization created to represent the claims of stateless Jewish refugees. That agreement established a program to make individual indemnification payments to Holocaust survivors—pensions that would try to take into account the physical suffering and material loss. It is interesting to note that this first agreement was also marked by a “disagreement” over terminology. The Germans referred to these compensation payments as Wiedergutmachung, literally, “to make whole.” But the Claims Conference has maintained that however meaningful the amounts paid by the German government may be there can be no “making whole” for the losses suffered by Jews in the Holocaust.
 
This early German indemnification legislation covered only survivors living in the West, and claims were no longer accepted after 1965. Needless to say, no assistance was provided to Survivors in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. As increasing numbers of them were able to emigrate in the 1970s, they turned to the Claims Conference for help. In turn it was able to negotiate a new agreement in 1980 that provided small one-time “hardship” payments to these Survivors. In 1992, with the advent of a unified Germany, the Claims Conference negotiated an agreement that would provide a modest (250 Euro) monthly pension to survivors who had suffered grievously and were in financial need, but it would exclude survivors who still lived in the countries of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. 
 
Until the fall of Communism it was not possible to extend individual benefits to these people, but that did not mean that Germany was eager or even willing to do so now. As a result, what until then had been largely a subject dealt with in quiet, private negotiations became a public campaign. 
 
There were in some of these same Eastern European countries veterans of the Waffen SS who discovered that their wartime service to the Nazi cause entitled them to receive disability payments or “war victims’ pensions” as they were called. But in these same countries Holocaust victims, some of them survivors of Auschwitz and other concentration camps and possibly even persecuted by those former Wafen SS soldiers, received nothing. 
 
The American Jewish Committee took up this issue. When appeals to friends and colleagues close to the German Chancellor in Bonn proved unsuccessful, it took out an ad in the NY Times in May 1998. “Guess which one receives a war victim’s pension from the German Government,” it read, under photos of a Latvian SS veteran and a Ukrainian Holocaust survivor. That was followed three months later by an open letter to Chancellor Kohl signed by 89 US Senators and also published in the Times. A month later the German government “reopened” negotiations and an agreement to extend pensions to severe Nazi victims in Eastern Europe and the FSU was reached in December. 
 
Until today many of the compensation programs funded by the German government have imposed various restrictions, ranging from geographic locations to financial means to degrees of persecution, and that in turn has been the focus of ongoing negotiations on behalf of remaining Holocaust survivors.
 
Other Western European countries were far more reticent in acknowledging any role or culpability for the crimes of the Holocaust. 
 
Austria had long relied on its description as Hitler’s “first victim”—part of an Allied powers declaration intended to hasten the end of the war—to maintain its innocence. This despite the fact of Hitler’s triumphant welcome following the Anschluss in 1938 and the imposition of anti-Jewish laws even more severe than those enacted in Germany proper. It was only in 1995, half a century after the war ended, that the Austrian government formally accepted responsibility for its part. The Parliament in Vienna established a National Fund to make small “symbolic” payments to Austrian Nazi victims. This was followed by an agreement—negotiated by the US government—creating a General Settlement Fund, which would receive claims and make payments for property losses. This was a significant step, but the fund itself was undercapitalized, leading to individual payments that were only 10-15 percent of actual losses. 
 
In France during the war local authorities identified and rounded up over 70,000 Jews, imprisoning them in Paris and then handing them over to Germany for deportation to Nazi death camps. Nevertheless, it was not until 1995 that a French president formally acknowledged this chapter in its history. The government went on to create two funds—one to provide compensation to French Jews for their material losses (and in this case at full, estimated value) and a second to support Holocaust research and education. One of the first recipients of these funds was the Memorial de la Shoah, the Holocaust Museum and Information Center in Paris. Visitors to the museum’s permanent exhibit walk first through a display of open file cabinets, revealing the thousands of organized, now-yellowed cards with the names of each Jewish family marked for deportation and death.  
 
America was spared the ravages of the war in Europe and the Soviet Union, and the anguish of American Jews at this time could not compare to the murder and suffering of their European brethren. From the 1930s through the wartime years American gates were largely closed to Jewish refugees seeking to flee the Nazi onslaught, and this remains a black spot in its history. But at the war’s end the doors were opened, and about 140,000 Holocaust survivors immigrated to the United States. 
 
They kept their stories to themselves, often not even sharing them with their own children. They did not want to relive the trauma; they did not want to impose such a burden on others. There were some scholarly accounts published and a number of memoirs. Perhaps the most notable was Elie Wiesel’s fictionalized account of his Holocaust experience, Night, published in 1958, decades before it achieved any significant popularity. Ironically, what brought the story of the Holocaust to most Americans and to the attention of then President Jimmy Carter was a four part television mini-series that aired in 1978. Combining soap opera and history, it followed the story of one German Jewish family from the rise of the Nazis through to the end of the war. 
 
President Carter decided there should be an American memorial to Holocaust victims and created a Holocaust Memorial Council, chaired by Elie Wiesel and including a number of Survivors among its members. They, in turn, decided that the most fitting memorial would be a museum. Years of planning followed. President Reagan offered space along the National Mall, and the completed museum was dedicated by President Clinton in 1993. Its permanent exhibition presented the history of the Holocaust in Europe from the rise of the Nazis in 1933 to the end of the war in 1945. But it also offered a critical view of US actions at the time. One panel described the ill-fated journey of the SS Saint Louis whose Jewish passengers were denied entry and sent back to Germany while another reproduced the official rejection letter sent to American Jewish leaders who had urged the President to bomb the tracks to Auschwitz.
 
This new attention to the history of the Holocaust in the 1990s also brought attention to the difficulties many Survivors had to reclaim property and other assets after the war’s end. 
 
Many had similar stories. Their parents had told them of opening bank accounts in Switzerland or other safe havens, but the bankers demanded account numbers and records—documents that they did not possess. And so those accounts remained secret, while their assets stayed with the banks.
 
Many knew they had insurance policies, but they lacked the receipts to prove their claims. Some who had the proper documentation described how insurance companies still demanded written confirmation of their parent’s passing, indifferent to the fact that Auschwitz did not issue death certificates. 
 
Millions of Nazi victims—non-Jews as well as Jews—were taken to provide slave labor for German industry, where hundreds of thousands were literally “worked to death.” Yet virtually none of those who survived received any compensation for this labor—despite the fact that some of those industries—Krupp, Siemens, and Volkswagen, for example—were now internationally successful corporations.
 
Decades had passed, but now for the first time there would be some success in securing redress for these victims and their claims, and ironically it would largely play out in the United States.
 
In a global economy European banks and insurance companies and German industries were all present in the American market, and as a result all were vulnerable to American courts and politicians and public opinion. The stories of Holocaust victims and their heirs being turned away by Swiss banks or rejected by Italian insurers were not new, but they were being heard for the first time by an American public—and frequently by an international audience too. As one reporter described it, this was “history born again as news.” 
 
The reputation of Swiss banks relied on their secrecy but this did not play well in America. US pension funds moved their sizeable deposits to other banks, while the Senate Banking Committee held hearings on their wartime activities.  Eventually, the banks agreed to open their books. In an arrangement administered by a NY State judge, 53,000 dormant accounts believed to have been held by Holocaust victims were published, and the Swiss banks agreed to pay $1.25 billion. Most of the money was earmarked for claimants with the balance directed to aid needy Holocaust victims.
 
No postwar agreement obligated German industry to compensate the slave laborers who toiled on its behalf. Such an obligation was “deferred” until there was a final settlement between Germany and the allied Powers on reparations, but the Cold War and the division of Germany itself meant that day would probably never come. Some victims sought justice in German courts, but they were no match for those companies’ legal teams. 
 
But American courts offered an alternative. Class action suits allowed an attorney to bring charges on behalf of an entire group of victims, such as individuals harmed by an act of industrial pollution or an improperly manufactured medicine. Thus, one successful court case could result in payments to tens of thousands of victims. The offending corporation need not even be American but had only to do some of its business in the US. One such class action suit was filed against Volkswagen on behalf of surviving slave laborers. The mere filing of the suit brought negative publicity and threatened the automaker’s sales. Suits against other German companies quickly followed. 
 
German industry appealed to its government, which reluctantly agreed to seek a comprehensive settlement with the US government. In bilateral negotiations which also included representatives of Holocaust victims organizations, Eastern European nations and the class action attorneys an agreement was reached in 2000 that provided for the payment of 5 billion Euro in the form of individual payments ranging between 2500 and 7500 Euros.
 
Similar class action suits were also filed against some European insurance companies. State Insurance Commissioners who regulate the business in the US also took up the issue with the offending companies. In this case even out-of-court settlements were rejected in favor of establishing a comprehensive review process. In 1998 the insurance companies, the insurance commissioners and Holocaust victims groups agreed to the creation of ICHEC, the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims. ICHEC pressed the companies to provide whatever information they had on Holocaust-era policies. Policy holder names were matched with victims lists prepared by Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. Commission members negotiated present-day valuations, relaxed standards of proof and agreed to cover policies of now defunct or nationalized companies. When it closed its doors in 2006 ICHEC had paid out about $306 million to 48,000 claimants
 
It is interesting to note that not a single Holocaust-era class action suit ever won a victory in court. Usually the threat of these suits, the negative publicity and the adverse impact on business in the US was sufficient to bring about out-of-court agreements that benefited the victims.
 
And what of Eastern Europe?
 
Here too there were seized properties and looted assets and far more Jewish Holocaust victims than in Western Europe. But coming out from under half a century of Communism where all properties had been nationalized by the state and with economies in shambles, there seemed little chance of success. 
 
But the first need would be to correct the history books. 
 
 All manner of history was politicized under Communism and factual, objective accounts of the Holocaust were not in evidence. The Soviet Union insisted that there would be no distinctions made among Nazi victims. All citizens suffered “equally” during World War II. 
 
In 2000, I had the opportunity to visit the town where my grandparents were born—Smolyany in eastern Belarus. In a wooded forest a short distance from town there is a small concrete memorial marker. This was where the occupying German soldiers took the town’s 800 Jews in April 1943, shot and buried them in a mass grave. The memorial states only that, “800 Soviet citizens were murdered by German Fascists.” There is no mention that they were Jews or that their deaths were part of a genocidal war against the Jews—a war that was really separate from the war being waged against the allied nations. And this wording was the operative formula for nearly all such memorials erected in the Soviet Union.
 
In Poland government authorities established a state museum at the site of the Auschwitz concentration camp. The wooden barracks and crematoria were preserved. Separate national exhibits were mounted in the stone barracks of Auschwitz I, whose entry bore the iconic sign “Arbeit Macht Frei” overhead. Auschwitz was viewed as a symbol of Polish suffering; 100,000 Poles, many of them priests, army officers, and intellectuals, perished there. But over one million Jews were also murdered at Auschwitz II, making it the largest Jewish cemetery in the world. Until the fall of Communism, museum guides informed visitors that two million people perished at the camp—one million Poles and one million Jews—suggesting an equality of victimhood that was simply false.
 
The Baltic States were incorporated into the Soviet Union before the end of the war. This was an occupation that the United States never recognized, but few people could imagine the unraveling of the USSR and the restoration of freedom to these three small republics. When it came there was a natural rejection of everything imposed by the Soviets and the posthumous rehabilitation of many nationalist figures whose fate had been Soviet prison camps and death. But among those rehabilitated victims were also murderers of Jews and genuine Nazi collaborators, and these new post-Communist societies paid little attention to the distinction.  
 
Perhaps over time these countries would eventually come on their own to take a critical view of their respective Holocaust-era histories and the role that many of their countrymen played in the Nazi persecution of Jews. But as I have noted, even in some Western democracies the process took fifty years. In this case there were opportunities to jump start the process. 
 
They were eager to gain NATO membership and focused on the enlargement debate taking place in Washington. In support of bringing in these new members a persuasive argument was made that NATO was as much a community of values as it was a military alliance. Proof of being up to the former was not so clear cut, but it did allow a focus on treatment of minorities, a reckoning with past conflicts, and addressing property claims. Coincidentally, there was a Jewish dimension in each of these elements. 
 
In March of 1998 I was invited by Estonian President Lennart Meri to visit him in Tallinn and then to accompany him the following day to a summit meeting of the three Baltic State Presidents in Riga. This was an opportunity to discuss with them the idea of creating national historical commissions as a way to examine the respective Holocaust-era events in each country, with the support of archival documents and historians in the West. Each President agreed to this proposal—with the addition that these commissions would also examine the period under Soviet occupation—and announced their plans at the close of the summit. Each commission came to function differently, but each has produced a critical, objective study that has been formally accepted if not always widely disseminated. 
 
A similar commission was established in Romania in 2003 focused solely on the Holocaust. Its creation followed claims by senior Romanian authorities that the only Holocaust in Romania took place in territory under Hungarian control. But documentation at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington and Yad Vashem in Jerusalem offered clear proof that over 250,000 Romanian Jews were murdered by Romanians in pogroms and internal deportations. The commission completed its report only a few months before Traian Basescu was elected President. During his first year in office he visited Washington and toured the Holocaust Museum, which included documents and photographs describing the Holocaust in Romania. At the conclusion of the tour he took the podium to address an assembled group of mostly Romanian press. Putting aside a prepared text he described the photos of Romanian police forcing Jews into Romanian rail cars. With tears welling up in his eyes, he said simply, “We did it. We did it.” The Romanian Historical Commission also recommended the establishment of a Holocaust research institute and a memorial in Bucharest. Both are now central features of the city.  
 
As difficult as dealing with history, equally so was dealing with property claims. 
 
In most Eastern European countries Christian religious properties were among the first to be returned. After all they were serving active, even growing communities. But Jewish properties were another matter. The destruction of Jewish communities was often so complete that there were no local congregations to claim the former synagogues, schools and other communal buildings. They had in any case been seized by the Nazis, desecrated and put to other uses even before the Communists nationalized them. And governments were not eager to displace the current occupants. 
 
But though they were decimated in the Holocaust, Jewish communities had not disappeared. Perhaps one of the small miracles we have witnessed is the revival of Jewish life in these countries. Many people—and especially Jews in America and in Israel—assumed that the fall of Communism would also mean a final exodus of these Jews. They were after all free to emigrate. And it was true; many did leave for Israel or America or Germany. But others stayed, and they rebuilt. And now they have need of these former Jewish properties—to house and support their own activities and to provide stability and financial independence. To this end, most of these countries eventually adopted legislation that provided for the partial return or payment of some compensation for these communal properties. They were frequently encouraged by outside voices—not least among them the United States—with the volume somewhat higher during the debates over NATO enlargement. 
 
It should be said that there is no place where all or even the majority of former Jewish communal properties were returned or full value paid. Most are fortunate if they have enough to sustain local community needs. 
 
And this has not only been about real estate.
 
In 2000 I was in Vilnius, a visitor to the National Library which had a vast collection of Jewish books and newspapers, much of it at the time uncatalogued and stored in an unheated annex. This drew international criticism and calls by some for transferring the collections to Israel or the United States. But largely unknown at the time was something the library director showed me. In a basement storage room laid out on shelves were over three hundred burlap-wrapped packages, each one containing a Torah scroll or fragment or other Biblical scroll. He told me they had been rescued after the war’s end, gathered secretly by the Library’s director at the time and hidden all these years. 
 
It was a moving story but I said this was not a happy ending. The Library might argue that its Jewish books belong on its shelves, rather than those of another country. But Torah scrolls do not belong on anyone’s storage shelves, I argued. They are an essential part of Jewish worship and they belong in synagogues. Eventually the government of Lithuania was persuaded, and it agreed to hand over nearly all of these scrolls for that purpose.  Two years later these scrolls were flown to Israel, repaired in Jerusalem and then distributed to Jewish congregations in America, Europe and Israel—now a genuine happy ending to a story that began seventy years ago.
 
In closing, I wish I could report to you that all such matters have now been resolved. But sadly that is not the case. We are still engaged in negotiations with Germany for homecare and medical support to needy Holocaust survivors in the last years of their lives. We are still pressing various Eastern European governments to resolve remaining communal and private property claims, and to discuss the question of heirless former Jewish property. Claims for looted assets including artwork and other valuables are still filed. 
    
Thankfully, Holocaust education and remembrance have been embraced in many places. The United Nations has designated January 27, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, as an official commemoration day, and some 33 countries have done similarly. There are today major memorials and museums in Washington, NYC, London, Paris, Warsaw, Berlin, Auschwitz, Jerusalem, Budapest, and other cities.  Many nations have incorporated Holocaust history into their educational curricula. 
 
Let us hope that education will ensure that future generations are able to avoid tragedies like the one we recall today.
 

(Author:cjss)