Shoah Reparations Plan Draws Criticism

By Nathaniel Popper

Published April 07, 2006, issue of April 07, 2006.
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A Hungarian government program offering compensation based on the number of family members killed in the Holocaust is coming under fire from survivors whom the initiative is supposed to be helping.

The Hungarian ambassador in Washington received a letter last week from six survivors who criticized an unusual reparations program that would pay Hungarian survivors $1,800 for each Hungarian parent or sibling killed in the Holocaust. The letter, which was organized after the Forward published an article on the program, said that “the victims do not want to be remembered in the history books as the greedy survivors who accepted the killing of their parents and siblings for any amount.”

The program, which is set to go into effect in the coming weeks, immediately created controversy because it would provide compensation for the death of a relative, creating an implicit equation between a human life and a monetary figure. In the past, reparations programs funded by such countries as Germany and Switzerland have avoided making the link between life and money by compensating for lost property or harm done to the person receiving the funds.

Those past reparations programs have themselves been criticized by survivors, but usually for the inadequacy of the sums involved or for the way the money was distributed. The letter to the Hungarian ambassador is unusual, because it takes on the moral premise of the program.

“Before this, we’ve been criticized for not getting enough money for heirs,” said Stuart Eizenstat, who led the Clinton administration’s efforts to win Holocaust reparations and restitution. “But we’ve never been criticized like this for giving money to heirs.”

The lead author of the letter, Alex Moscovic, said he had not had misgivings about taking funds from past restitution and reparations programs; he was one of the leaders of the effort to win reparations in the Hungarian Gold Train case involving claims that American troops looted stolen property after the war. When Moscovic was originally contacted by the Forward about the new Hungarian program, he said he would take the money rather than leave it to the Hungarian government. Moscovic lost both of his siblings and both of his parents in the Holocaust, and thus would be eligible for $7,200. But after the article appeared in the Forward, Moscovic said he reconsidered his attitude as he thought more about the ramifications of taking the money.

“The issue that is bothering me is how this will go down in future history, as far as our legacy is concerned,” said Moscovic. He formerly led an organization of child survivors in Florida, where he lives.

Moscovic said that he and the other signatories to the letter are not looking for the program to be totally scrapped. Instead they want to see it redesigned so that it provides compensation for the lost childhood of the survivors, or for their suffering as orphans — but not for any lives lost. They also want the Hungarian government to provide an apology for the role of Hungarian officials in the deportation of the country’s 400,000 Jews. The letter asks for a meeting with the Hungarian ambassador, Andras Simonyi, to discuss changing the program. A spokesman at the Hungarian Embassy confirmed that the letter had been received, and they were formulating their response.

It is not clear how representative the letter is of attitudes among the estimated 60,000 Hungarian survivors. The signees do not claim to speak on behalf of any group, though two of them are leaders of prominent survivor organizations. Getting a pulse on Hungarian survivors is difficult, because the only American organization set up exclusively for them has only about 50 members. The leader of that New York-based group, Evi Blaikie, said she had sent out the letter to her members and so far had not heard any objections.

“Most of our members want to sign this letter,” Blakie said. “If [the Hungarians] want to pay a certain amount, it should not be for a parent or sibling.”

A different message, though, came from a leader at the Israeli organization for Hungarian Jews.

“Why should [the Hungarians] have this money in their hands?” said Joseph Bar Yoel, a board member of the Association of Hungarian Emigres to Israel. Bar Yoel, 82, said he would take the money and give it to Jewish National Fund to plant trees in memory of his parents and two brothers.

The new Hungarian reparations effort is actually the revival and expansion of a program from the late 1990s that offered survivors $150 for each parent who was killed and $70 for each sibling. That program did not attract many applicants, because of the small sums and because survivors had only a few months to apply. The details of the program –– which were negotiated with the Hungarian government by the New York-based Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany –– were set to be released this week, and applicants would have a few months to apply. Separate from the letter to the ambassador, Moscovic criticized the Claims Conference in a letter sent to a newsletter for survivors.

“Now the Claims Conference has reached another plateau where they have negotiated a DOLLAR VALUE [sic] for our parents’ and siblings’ ashes,” Moscovic wrote to the All Generations newsletter.

Officials at the Claims Conference said they had no comment. But Eizenstat, the Clinton-era official who helped negotiate past agreements, said that “the Hungarian government should be applauded for the action they’re taking.”

“It’s impossible to substitute adequately any compensation for the grievous losses,” Eizenstat said. “But money is a surrogate which is in effect an apology for wrongs that were committed. This is the way we do it in western jurisprudence.”

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