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Seeking Compensation for Tragedy

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 Henry obtained full access to the Claims Conference’s archives, and includes previously unpublished sources after 1965.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.

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