The Hungarian government soon will begin paying family members of Holocaust victims $1,800 for each sibling or parent who was murdered, rekindling old debates about “blood money” and the limits of reparations.
The Hungarians agreed to the payments during a meeting in Budapest last week with the president of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany. The initiative revives a 1997 program that paid Hungarian survivors $150 for each parent and $70 for each sibling who was killed in the Holocaust. Few survivors applied under the old program.
Many European countries have provided compensation to victims of the Holocaust, but Hungary’s program is unusual. Past programs in Germany, Switzerland and France, among other countries, have provided money for stolen property or have compensated survivors for the pain they themselves suffered. The Hungarian payments are different because they are connected directly to the death of a person. As a result, the payments raise tough questions about the morality of accepting money for losses endured during the Holocaust.
“It’s proper to pay for everything they took away from us — but not lives,” said Aliza Burger, who came from the Hungarian town of Munkacs. “How can I accept money for people? You cannot put a value on people’s lives.”
Burger lost her entire family in the Holocaust — including two younger brothers and both parents. In the past, Burger, 77, has applied to be compensated for insurance policies
and Swiss bank accounts that her family held before the war, which were confiscated when the Nazis invaded Hungary. But Burger said she would not consider applying for the $7,200 she could now receive for the death of her four family members.
“God forbid they kill your parents and give you money for it,” Burger said.
Burger’s anxieties were echoed in interviews with other Hungarian survivors, although many said that they would rather take the money than allow the Hungarian government to keep it.
“This is not going to bring my father back or replace his value,” said Magda Preisz, 70, whose father was killed when her family was living in Budapest during the war. “On the other hand, I’m going to take every penny that they give. They got to pay something.”
The Hungarian program joins a raft of reparations and restitution programs that have been negotiated by the Claims Conference, which was created in 1954 to represent Jewish organizations worldwide in reparations negotiations with the former West Germany. Germany has since paid more than $40 billion to survivors. More recently, agreements have been reached on restitution of property stolen from victims, resulting in billions of dollars in payments by Germany, Austria and Switzerland for looted bank accounts, slave labor and confiscated property. Since then there has been a steady trickle of new programs negotiated by the Claims Conference.
The Hungarian program came out of negotiations led by the president of the Claims Conference, Rabbi Israel Singer. The exact rules have not been published, but it is expected that the relatives of Hungarian victims will have a four-month span to apply for the money at some point later this year. A family will receive 400,000 forints, or $1,800, for each deceased relative, to be divided among surviving relatives. (Those familiar with the situation say that the connection to 18 — the numerical value of the Hebrew word for life, chai — is a coincidence.)
Many will not have to split the money. Alex Moskowitz, for instance, lost two brothers and two parents and has no other living relatives. All together, more than 400,000 Hungarians lost their lives during the Holocaust.
The executive director of the Claims Conference, Gideon Taylor, acknowledged that the Hungarian program is a departure from past programs for survivors.
“Because of the structure, there’s heightened symbolism,” Taylor said. “It doesn’t change the fundamental, which is that all of these programs are about symbolism and not about compensation.”
Thane Rosenbaum, a law professor who has been heavily involved with reparations’ proceedings, said that the unusual nature of the Hungarian program has a virtue because it recognizes the loss of the victims, which past programs did not.
“Now that the world is losing survivors, it’s good to remember that two out of every three Jews never got to be a survivor,” said Rosenbaum, author of “The Myth of Moral Justice.”
But, Rosenbaum added, this program, like many past ones, is problematic because it deals with losses in purely monetary terms, rather than with an apology or any effort at historical reconciliation. The fact that the money is for a life, rather than for a physical loss, makes the situation that much worse, he said.
“You’re getting a check that you can’t even pay rent with,” Rosenbaum said. “That’s somehow defining who your father was.”
Judith Bihaly, a 71-year-old survivor from Hungary, took the moral arguments like Rosenbaum’s to heart. Bihaly said that in the 1950s, she and thousands of other survivors protested the Israeli government’s decision to accept Holocaust reparation payments from Germany. When, as part of another reparations program, she was sent a check for $2,000 many years later, she immediately signed it over to her mother.
“It almost felt that I was defiling myself by physically touching the check,” Bihaly said.
As the years have gone by, though, Bihaly said she has come to regret her decision as she sees survivors around her receiving a pension from Germany and a “decent life as a result of the income they received.”
Bihaly is planning to apply to the Hungarians for the loss of her father. She will not receive anything for her twin brother, who committed suicide in 1968, haunted by memories of the camps.
“I still feel that it is blood money,” Bihaly said. “But I regret not having the money.”