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The Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, which recently won a substantial new award for holocaust victims, continues to set precedent

by Michael Z. Wise

"I FELT THE wings of world history beating in this room," a somber West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer told the Jewish leader Nahum Goldmann in 1951, when the two met secretly to prepare the way for talks on German reparations for the attempt to annihilate European Jewry. Both men were aware of the momentous moral significance of their encounter. Neither one of them could have foreseen the magnitude of the resulting commitment.

Today, nearly half a century after the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps, the Federal Republic of Germany has paid out more than $50 billion in the form of reparations to the State of Israel and indemnification to Holocaust survivors. The German Finance Ministry estimates that it will pay out almost $20 billion more by the year 2030, when according to its current calculations the last survivor will have died. Yet what the German government calls Wiedergutmachung, literally meaning "making good again," can never truly be completed. Most Jews and some Germans avoid the term Wiedergutmachung altogether, considering it to be naive.
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Fear that the memory of the Holocaust may recede with time has in recent years prompted an international outpouring of books and films, and a proliferation of monuments to the Holocaust's victims. Amid these acts of commemoration a little-known organization persists in seeking benefits for tens of thousands of survivors who have still not been indemnified, and at the same time monitors Germany's compliance with existing compensation agreements. For the New York-based Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, founded by Goldmann in 1951, memory alone is insufficient. The conference has spent the past four decades quietly working behind closed doors, acting as the go-between for the victims of Nazi persecution and officials of the democratic state that arose from the ashes of the Third Reich. An umbrella group representing twenty-four Jewish organizations in the United States, France, Britain, Canada, Germany, Argentina, Australia, South Africa, and Israel, the conference negotiated concurrently with Israel the original 1952 West German agreements on reparations and indemnification. Last autumn the conference concluded a major accord under which the newly unified Germany pledged to pay more than half a billion dollars to Jews around the world who endured persecution but until now have received little or no compensation because they failed to meet complex legal criteria. During the German unification talks the United States, long concerned about East Germany's refusal to accept responsibility for Nazi atrocities, had pressed for the commitment when negotiating withdrawal as an occupying power.

Survivors in marginal financial circumstances, many of them refugees from Eastern Europe who missed a 1965 cutoff date for earlier compensation, will be covered by the new agreement. It is expected to furnish more than 25,000 victims with pensions of around $300 a month, starting in 1995, provided that the victims were incarcerated in a concentration camp for at least six months or spent at least eighteen months in a ghetto or in hiding. Another 40,000 survivors who do not meet these criteria will receive one-time payments of 5,000 marks (about $3,000). For the time being, cash-strapped Germany has committed itself to making the monthly payments only through the end of 1999.

THE ANNOUNCEMENT of the new accord last November swiftly aroused expectations among needy survivors, who have packed the shabby waiting room of the claims conference's Manhattan headquarters, jammed its telephone lines, and mailed in tens of thousands of requests for applications for the new benefits. In response the conference has doubled its staff, to more than ninety in its offices in New York, Frankfurt, and Tel Aviv.

For the past two decades the austere New York headquarters have been in a midtown office building. The walls are covered with yellowing maps depicting the sites of former concentration camps and also Wehrmacht troop movements across Europe. The scene brings to mind the Vienna base of the war-crimes investigator Simon Wiesenthal. Here, too, a warren of chambers is crowded with files and boxed documents, in an atmosphere of ethical imperative. In one room a team of seven recent Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union work ten-hour days addressing envelopes and stuffing them with bilingual applications (in English and German) for the new benefits. The completed questionnaires often are returned paper-clipped with a snapshot of an elderly man or woman, a tattooed arm in the foreground. Photocopies of passports, diplomas, naturalization papers, and affidavits accompany the forms.

One page of the application is given over to a request for a "detailed description of persecution." Some answers are short and to the point. A woman who survived confinement in Lodz wrote: "I was forced to work in the ghetto. My entire family was killed." Others fill all thirty-one lines provided, frequently with fractured English.

Accounts of torment are commonplace here. "I read them every day," says Gerta Feigin, a sixty-five-year-old former lawyer from Latvia who oversees the processing of applications before they are sent to Germany. "And still, every time you take a horrible case in your hands, you just tremble."

Fluent in German, Russian, and English, Feigin possesses a specialized knowledge that is essential for the verification of claims. When further information is required, she personally interviews applicants. A small number are rejected as fraudulent. "I know every ghetto and every concentration camp," she says. "And I start to ask, Where did you live? Did You live in a barracks? What food did you get? At what time was the Appell [roll-call]? If he says it was at six o'clock in Auschwitz, then he's lying, because there the Appell was at nine."

Hysteria sometimes emerges when survivors must summon painful memories in a face-to-face interview. Some project their pain and anguish on the claims conference. "I wish I could wave a magic wand and the whole trauma would disappear," Saul Kagan, the executive director, said late one evening after patiently responding to a series of phone calls from yet another disturbed survivor. A native of what is now Vilnius, in what was then Poland, Kagan, who is now seventy, has been a key figure in the claims conference since its inception. He himself managed to come to the United States before German troops invaded Poland, but his mother and brother did not survive the occupation. Kagan was a member of the original conference negotiating team.

BEFORE THE 1952 agreements there was no precedent in international law for a nation-state to assume responsibility for crimes it committed against a minority within its jurisdiction, and no precedent for collective claims of this kind. Even if nothing can call the dead back to life or obliterate the crimes, Nahum Goldmann wrote in his memoirs, "this agreement is one of the few great victories for moral principles in modern times." Pragmatism went hand in hand with morality for both German and Jewish negotiators. Adenauer recognized that reparations were the price for West Germany's admission into the community of civilized nations. And although many Jews rejected the idea of "blood money," the new government of Israel desperately needed financial support. Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion maintained that the killing of the European Jews was a crime for which material reparation could never atone. But his government argued that damages were owed to the heirs of victims, and were needed for survivors' reintegration into normal life. There was plenty to lay claim to. At war's end billions of dollars' worth of plundered Jewish property, including real-estate holdings, securities, jewelry, artworks, and furniture, remained in German hands. "The German people continue to enjoy the fruits of the butcheries and plundering of its leaders of yesterday," an Israeli government statement declared, augmenting the charge with a biblical quotation, from I Kings 21:19: "Hast thou killed and also taken possession?"

The claims conference carefully chose its name to stress the purely material nature of the action and to signal that no quid pro quo was involved, no policy of forgive and forget that somehow suggested the equivalence of six million deaths and a monetary sum. Still, the creation of the conference threw many Jews into emotional turmoil. When the Israeli Parliament convened to approve the negotiations, demonstrators smashed Knesset windows; at least 180 people were injured. Adenauer for his part faced objections from financial advisers to any large-scale payments -- West Germany's "economic miracle" was not yet in evidence. Both Adenauer and Goldmann received threats of violence. An explosives expert was killed detonating a mail bomb sent to Adenauer by Jewish extremists. Once a decision was made to proceed, it was out of the question for the Jewish side that talks be held on German soil. Instead they took place in seclusion outside The Hague.

Under the terms of the initial accords West Germany paid $714 million to Israel in compensation for Israel's having taken in uprooted Jewish refugees, and about $110 million to the claims conference to help rebuild shattered European Jewish communities and to support Holocaust research institutions and hundreds of schools, old-age homes, and synagogues around the world. As part of the $714 million payment Israel received German-financed shipments of oil and other raw materials that enabled it to build its modern infrastructure. The 1952 accords further obliged West Germany to compensate individuals for loss of liberty, property, and relatives' lives, and for injury to health and professional advancement. Germany is now paying lifelong pensions to 170,000 Holocaust survivors and their heirs. At a peak period as many as 275,000 were receiving pensions.

Legislation excludes victims who are not German citizens and remained in their country of origin after the war. West Germany argued that such people have been covered by bilateral accords between Bonn and European governments which provided payments for these states themselves to assist those persecuted by the Nazis. Although the scope of eligibility for direct indemnification has been broadened over the years in response to claims-conference lobbying, the conference failed in its repeated efforts to get an extension of the 1965 deadline by which claimants had to file. Its primary concern was that thousands of Jews who were living hehind the Iron Curtain after the war and who later emigrated were unable to apply for compensation. All the same, many inequities remained, and after Eastern European Jews began to emigrate to the West in large numbers, although the deadline was past West Germany did agree, in 1980, to make one-time payments of about $3,000 from a hardship fund that is being replenished under the latest accord and is administered by the claims conference.

Beyond the official contacts, the claims conference has negotiated compensation to individuals from some of the companies that benefited from Jewish slave labor, including I. G. Farben, Siemens, and Krupp. Their payments are seen by the conference as morally significant. They are also exceedingly modest. "Cold and niggardly" is how Telford Taylor, the chief U.S. prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials, has described them. More-recent negotiations with two other firms, Daimler-Benz and Volkswagen, have resulted in grants to institutions sheltering and providing care to infirm Holocaust survivors.

The conference awaits a further injection of funds from the sale of property once owned by Jewish individuals and organizations in eastern Germany, where assets seized by the Nazis were never returned, having been swiftly nationalized by the Communist rulers. Since the reunification of Germany, in 1990, the conference has been designated by the German government as having rights to such property when no heirs remain. The conference has submitted scores of claims over the past two years.

Claims-conterence officials nowadays meet with German officials in Bonn as a matter of course. The relationship has become "almost routine," says Hermann Josef Brodesser, the chief of the Finance Ministry's Section for Indemnification of National Socialist Injustice. "All of us, on both sides, know what happened and so on," Brodesser says. "Therefore there are appropriate solutions to be found, and we work together in a very businesslike manner." Rabbi Israel Miller, who took over as conference president after Goldmann's death, in 1982, says, "The people who we're dealing with now in the main were not even alive at that time, and they don't feel any kind of guilt." However, the conference is watching developments in Germany with some concern. An October, 1990, opinion poll for the American Jewish Committee found that 66 percent of Germans believed that reparations should stop. Germany is spending billions of dollars a year to rebuild the formerly Communist eastern part of the country, and plans to curb state spending for social programs have sparked voter hostility over the mounting economic demands of unification.

"There is now a new generation in Germany that is shouldering the tax burden, that does not have the same memories of the war," says Sidney Clearfield, the executive vice-president of B'nai B'rith International, a claims-conference constituent group. "There's a feeling of enough is enough." Nonetheless, the conference is intent on ensuring that as many needy survivors as possible live out their final years in dignity. A meeting with German officials is planned for 1994 to review the efficacy of the latest accord.

For this singular body the bottom line is not just deutsche marks but the principle of accountability. Kagan notes with satisfaction that Germany, by accepting responsibility for its predecessor government, has taken a step that has overriding moral significance for the international community. In this late- twentieth-century world of genocidal impulses and "ethnic cleansing," the precedents that have been set may be needed again.

Copyright © 1993 by Michael Z. Wise. All rights reserved. The Atlantic Monthly; October 1993; Volume 272, No. 4; pages 32-35
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