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Holocaust reparations: The back story

(Jewish Ideas Daily) — On July 10th, dignitaries from the U.S., German, and Israeli governments attended a celebratory ceremony at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum marking the 60th anniversary of the first agreement between the West German and Israeli governments and the Jewish “Claims Conference” to grant modest financial compensation for the Holocaust.  Some of the Jews present had spent the years since the agreement in seemingly interminable haggling.

Ambassador Stuart Eizenstat, a prominent Jewish corporate lawyer currently serving as Special Advisor to the Secretary of State on Holocaust Issues and Special Negotiator for the Jewish Claims Conference, also served as an official in Bill Clinton’s administration.  Back then, he headed the talks between lawyers for Holocaust survivors and German corporations that were accused of using slave labor during the War.  He subsequently wrote a self-praising volume about his role and received the “Great Negotiator” award from Harvard Law School.

At the ceremony, Eizenstat declared that “the Claims Conference vision, we hope, of meaningful compensation and reparations during the last 60 years has truly brought a reconciliation between Germany, the Jewish people, and the state of Israel.”

But was Eizenstat’s claim justified?  As a Holocaust survivor and British academic, who acted as honorary advisor to a group of former slave laborers in London during talks in the 1990s, I have my doubts.

To begin with, the oft-cited statistic that Germany has given over $60 billion in payments to Nazi victims is disingenuous.  Much of this consists of pensions and related payments to former German citizens whom Hitler forced to leave but who would have received the payments in any case had they remained.

While I appreciate the dilemmas faced by Eizenstat and the Jewish bodies that participated in the negotiations of the 1990s, my firsthand experiences have led me to be critical of them.  In particular, the emphasis on haggling for money—admittedly a valid aim in view of the poverty of some Holocaust survivors in Israel and the FSU—led to unseemly sacrifices of historical truth for cash.

Eizenstat thought it better to settle for less money for elderly survivors, rather than pursue lawsuits that were both risky and likely to drag on until the claimants were dead.  But there were problems with the settlement won by the “Great Negotiator.”  Not only would former slave laborers only receive the insultingly small sum of $7,500 or less, but in return they would be required to sign away all future legal rights.  Meanwhile, there would be no German admission of legal liability for the atrocities of the Nazi “Death through Work” program.  The German President offered an apology but on condition that the Clinton administration sign an agreement assuring the German government and corporations of “legal peace.”

The German refusal to acknowledge that Holocaust slave labor was illegal continues to have huge symbolic importance.  How can there be true reconciliation if modern Germany continues to deny legal liability for Nazi Germany’s unspeakable actions?

Moreover, German authorities have engaged in historical spin-doctoring, pushing for the abandonment of the term “slave labor” in favor of the less harsh-sounding “forced labor.”  German corporations have also financed the writing of accounts of their records under the Nazis, but these “gray-washing” accounts make only small admissions alongside denials of guilt on large matters.

German negotiators also insisted on reserving a proportion of the settlement offer for so-called “remembrance” projects, which in practice meant that a German-dominated committee would act as a major source of research funds for Holocaust studies.  But such funding tends to have distortive effects on the research.  A related German policy has been to restrict archive access to chosen historians; I myself have been denied access to key archives held by Deutsche Bank and Volkswagen.

As for the Claims Conference itself, over the years officials’ interests have become isolated from those of the wider Jewish community.  In 2006 it emerged that Auschwitz slave laborers had been offered a maximum of $7,500 while the Conference’s chief official had received an annual salary and pension contribution of $437,811.  The lawyers representing survivors also settled on terms that were arguably disadvantageous to their clients in return for multi-million dollar payouts for themselves.  And in addition to repeated financial scandals involving the Conference, there is also the matter of some $57 million reportedly granted by its officials in exchange for kickbacks.

World Jewry has three responsibilities to Holocaust survivors.  The first is to ensure all available compensation goes to them, not to “remembrance” projects for museums and academic research financed by German authorities.  Second, the German archives must be freely available, not restricted to historians sponsored by the very corporations accused of using slave labor under the Nazis. Third, German admission of legal liability must be secured.  Only then can there be genuine reconciliation between Germany and the Jewish people.

(Dr. Michael Pinto-Duschinsky is a British political scientist who was appointed in 2011 by Prime Minister David Cameron to the UK Commission on a Bill of Rights. A Holocaust survivor, he was honorary academic advisor to the London-based Claims for Jewish Slave Labor Compensation. This article was first published by Jewish Ideas Daily ( and is reprinted with permission.)