Seeking Compensation for Tragedy

Nonfiction

By Brigitte Sion

Published December 22, 2006, issue of December 22, 2006.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Confronting the Perpetrators: A History of the Claims Conference
By Marilyn Henry
Vallentine Mitchell, 256 pages, $35.

Since 1952, more than 500,000 Jewish victims of Nazism have received compensation from Germany. As imperfect as the term “compensation” sounds in this case, no payment ever would have been made to survivors without the relentless and dedicated efforts of the Claims Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, commonly known as the Claims Conference. Everything relating to the Conference is exceptional, from its creation to its mode of operation, from the duration of its action to the legal precedents it set in international law.

Marilyn Henry’s book, “Confronting the Perpetrators: A History of the Claims Conference,” with a foreword by Sir Martin Gilbert, is a thoroughly documented account of both this organization and its unrecognized work. Henry obtained full access to the Claims Conference’s archives, and includes previously unpublished sources after 1965. She is a rigorous historian when sourcing her arguments, while maintaining the flowing and accessible style of a journalist.

It all started with an unlikely meeting in a Dutch castle in 1952, in which a consortium of Jewish organizations, along with representatives of the State of Israel, were invited to negotiate with officials from West Germany for “moral and material amends for Nazi-era damage.” These first formal talks between Jews and Germans after the Holocaust led to the Luxembourg Agreements, according to which Germany would pay 3 billion deutsche marks to Israel and 450 million to the Claims Conference for the relief of survivors outside of Israel, and pledge to enact legislation to provide compensation and restitution to individual victims of Nazi persecution. Germany was trying to reintegrate an honorable position in the family of nations, and this gesture of “reconciliation” seemed to help. But Germany was also hoping for closure, while the Claims Conference considered no deal to be final.

And so, what at first looked like an unprecedented success turned out to be the beginning of a decade-long battle on behalf of Holocaust survivors. The German government imposed criteria based on geography and nationality that created discriminations among survivors: Those living on the other side of the Iron Curtain, those who had changed citizenship, or those who had spent less than a year in a concentration camp received nothing from the first agreement. The pragmatic leaders of the Claims Conference — most notably Rabbi Israel Miller, Saul Kagan, Nahum Goldmann, Benjamin Ferencz, Karl Brozik and Ernst Katzenstein — never gave up, but rather inched their way to obtain expanded criteria and extended deadlines, in order to increase the number of beneficiaries, such as slave laborers, ghetto survivors, hidden children and concentration camp inmates.

Henry’s book is the first comprehensive account of the Claims Conference’s 50 years of activity, especially in the post-Cold War period, and also the first to analyze in a fair and accessible way the legal intricacies, political challenges and moral dilemmas pertaining to financial compensation to survivors of the Holocaust, or other atrocities.

For decades, the Claims Conference tried to obtain compensation for Nazi-era losses, but East Germany denied that it was a successor to Nazi Germany and rejected any obligation to pay. In retrospect, this failure was blessing in disguise, because the early claims were too low. In post-reunification Germany, the Claims Conference was able not only to obtain financial compensation for the former East Germany’s moral obligations, but also to recover heirless Jewish properties in East Germany. The recovery of looted and confiscated assets is one of the last battles in which the Claims Conference has been engaged.

The work of the Claims Conference was not strictly political or legal; it came with a heavy emotional load, particularly when the advocacy organization became an operating agency that approved or rejected individual claims and administered payments. The Claims Conference leaders, many of whom were Holocaust survivors themselves, fought against imposing the burden of proof on the claimant: It was hard enough for survivors to go on with their lives without having to share medical histories or financial records.

The Claims Conference was often a work in progress itself, and had to find creative ways of overcoming restrictive German laws. Henry shows how the Conference obtained compensation for groups that were originally excluded from it. One example is the “flight cases,” those Jews who fled from Soviet-held territory into the interior of the Soviet Union and escaped persecution in territories later occupied by Nazis. By insisting that they would have been murdered, the Conference was able to make them eligible.

The Claims Conference acted quickly, but not always efficiently or tactfully. It was not spared from controversies and scandals. There were times when local Jewish communities or individuals considered the Conference’s work on behalf of heirs to be abuse of power. In 1988, it was discovered that the president of the German Jewish Federation, which was channeling some Claims Conference funds, pocketed 30 million Duetsche Marks, a fact discovered after his death.

These flaws, however, seem insignificant next to the work that has been accomplished for Holocaust survivors and beyond. Today, more than 90,000 Jewish victims of Nazism continue to receive monthly pensions directly from Germany. Various funds have contributed to rebuilding Jewish life in Europe, helping survivors as well as supporting Holocaust research (most notably at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem).

The Luxembourg Agreements represent the effort of the Claims Conference to achieve justice for Holocaust survivors. What started as a revolutionary idea to obtain unprecedented reparation on behalf of victims endured for more than half a century, and transcended the history of the Holocaust. These agreements also set a milestone in international law. In establishing the precedent by which individual victims of human rights abuses and atrocities are entitled to redress, they have inspired the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, which includes provisions for victims of human rights abuse.

Brigitte Sion is a doctoral student at New York University writing her dissertation about Holocaust memorials.






Find us on Facebook!
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • What do you think?
  • "To everyone who is reading this article and saying, “Yes, but… Hamas,” I would ask you to just stop with the “buts.” Take a single moment and allow yourself to feel this tremendous loss. Lay down your arms and grieve for the children of Gaza."
  • Professor Dan Markel, 41 years old, was found shot and killed in his Tallahassee home on Friday. Jay Michaelson can't explain the death, just grieve for it.
  • Employees complained that the food they received to end the daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan was not enough (no non-kosher food is allowed in the plant). The next day, they were dismissed.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.