For 60th Year, Germany Honors Duty to Pay Holocaust Victims

Share with others:


Print Email Read Later

BERLIN -- In a week when demonstrators from Greece to Spain drew parallels between Chancellor Angela Merkel's drive for austerity and the brutality of the Nazis, a symbolic act recognizing the commitment that a postwar, peaceful Germany has made to many of those who survived Hitler's atrocities largely went unnoticed.

Germany's postwar reparations program has become such a matter of fact that many Germans are not even aware that their country, after paying $89 billion in compensation mostly to Jewish victims of Nazi crimes over six decades, still meets regularly to revise and expand the guidelines for qualification. The aim is to reach as many of the tens of thousands of elderly survivors who have never received any form of support.

In prominent places among the government buildings in the heart of a reunified Berlin, Germans have placed new memorials honoring the Jewish, gay, and Sinti and Roma victims. But the reparations program, which was created when Konrad Adenauer, the first chancellor of West Germany, and Israel signed the Luxembourg Agreement in 1952, receives far less attention.

By starting the program, West Germany, for the first time, assumed responsibility for compensating Jewish victims of Nazi crimes. Stuart E. Eizenstat, a special negotiator for the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, praised it as historically unique at a gathering here last week for its 60th anniversary.

"Here we started 60 years ago, when the German government was on its knees economically, and yet you made this commitment," Mr. Eizenstat said Thursday at the event. "And here we are 60 years later at a time when you are bearing the burdens of Europe and a generation never even born during the war continues to fulfill its obligation."

Over the years, the agreement has been amended and adapted to reflect the geopolitical changes in Europe, after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Communist rule across Eastern Europe, and the changing needs of aging Holocaust survivors.

Last year, for survivors of ghettos, the amount of time spent there to qualify for compensation was reduced to 12 months from 18 months. As of Nov. 1, the program was opened to survivors living in countries previously under Soviet influence, making an estimated 80,000 more people eligible for one-time payments of $3,250. Starting next year, eligibility will extend to anyone who can prove that they hid from the Nazis for at least six months.

The negotiations between officials of the German Finance Ministry and representatives of the claims conference have also evolved over the decades. Though stiff silence dominated at the signing of the initial agreement, negotiators now view the other side as partners with a common goal of trying to reach as many survivors as they can, while they still can.

Roman Kent, 83, a survivor of Auschwitz and the ghetto in Lodz, Poland, said he had been involved in the talks for so long that he no longer remembered when he started. Having built a new life and a successful business in the United States, where he immigrated in 1946, Mr. Kent initially had no desire to become involved in the compensation discussions or to travel to Germany.

"When I went the first time, I felt extremely uncomfortable to be there," he said of his initial round of negotiations.

At one point during that first discussion, Mr. Kent said, he made clear to the Germans across the table how difficult, how emotional, the process was for him.

On Thursday, Mr. Kent opened his speech with a quotation from a German poet, Heinrich Heine, who converted to Christianity from Judaism. Mr. Kent drew a parallel, reflecting how the process of working with the former enemy toward a common goal has altered his perception.

"We survivors and the Germans of today are together united," Mr. Kent said. "Both of us do not want our past to be our children's future."

Not that the process is always smooth. Although the compensation has been supported through the years by German governments on both sides of the political spectrum, they must negotiate within the constraints of a federal budget. An investigation begun in 2010 found that employees of the claims conference had been involved in a scheme to use fake identification to defraud the fund of more than $42 million, only part of which has been paid back.

Julius Berman, the chairman of the claims conference, said that despite everything that has been accomplished, there remain as many as 50,000 victims who have never received compensation in any form. Mr. Berman also points to thousands of people scarred by the trauma of losing their parents, and their childhood, to the Nazis as a group still deserving recognition.

"It has never been about the money," Mr. Berman said of the compensation program. "It was always about recognition."

Asked whether, given the millions of dollars that Germany is now pledging to help weaker economies in the euro zone, there were thoughts that 60 years of payments to survivors was enough, Werner Gatzer, who leads the negotiations for the Germans, shook his head.

"We will have done enough when no more survivors remain," Mr. Gatzer said. "As long as they live, we will uphold our responsibility."

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

You have 2 remaining free articles this month

Try unlimited digital access

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here

You’ve reached the limit of free articles this month.

To continue unlimited reading

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here