The Dangers of Holocaust Restitution

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Abraham H. Foxman
National Director
Anti-Defamation League

December 1998

Now that Swiss banks have reached a settlement on Nazi gold, investigations into that country’s Holocaust-era past are closed and the tide has turned to investigations of other countries, corporations, insurance companies and institutions like museums. This week General Motors and Ford became the latest to be named for allegedly assisting Hitler’s war effort. Also this week, representatives of 44 nations, Jewish groups and other interested parties gathered in Washington at the Holocaust Memorial Museum to examine a variety of issues related to Holocaust restitution, including insurance, property and stolen art.

Certainly, individuals who had bank accounts, insurance policies or works of art that were stolen have a right to pursue their claims. But when these legitimate claims become the main focus of activity regarding the Holocaust, rather than the unique horror of six million Jews, including 1.5 million children, being murdered simply because they were Jewish, then something has gone wrong. A new "industry" has sprung up,
The focus must remain on discovering the truth, on revealing and owning up to the past.
spearheaded by lawyers and institutions, in an effort to get what they call "justice" for Holocaust victims. As a Holocaust survivor, I question for whom they speak and how they define "justice" The focus must remain on discovering the truth, on revealing and owning up to the past.

Lawyers have filed a civil suit against Ford accusing it, through its German-based subsidiaries, of aiding the Nazi effort, using slave labor and earning huge profits. Similar charges against GM are being documented in a book to be released next year. Both of the American automotive giants had plants in Germany, established before the war, which flourished under the Nazi regime and continued operations even after the U.S. joined the war. What they "owe" for this in dollars and cents is not yet clear, but they do owe us the truth. While the corporations’ current leaders cannot be held culpable for what transpired during the Nazi era, they will be judged by how they deal with it. They must vigorously, voluntarily and honestly confront that past by opening up their archives.

Seeking restitution is important, but at what price? Look at what happened in Switzerland. Yes, we got a check, but what about morality, reconciliation and confronting the past? The Swiss have yet to come to grips with the realities that their history, not the Jews, is their enemy, and that the settlement was not blackmail but a moral debt they should have paid voluntarily.

We can only hope for a measure of justice, a symbolic justice that demonstrates an accounting and accountability.

What concerns me today is the zealous quest for restitution without regard for consequences. A protracted discussion and debate could bring a high price for the Jewish people, for history and for memory. We need to understand that there is no absolute justice. Full justice could never be obtained from the Swiss, because we cannot put a price on the life of a child whom the Swiss turned back at the border when they saw "J" in his documents. We can only hope for a measure of justice, a symbolic justice that demonstrates an accounting and accountability.

Since the Swiss settlement there has been a rush for restitution. Some lawyers see it as an opportunity of a lifetime. Some politicians see it as a way to gain Jewish support. The $1.25 billion Swiss settlement would not have been achieved without the dogged efforts of lawyers and politicians, many of whom worked pro bono and because it was the right
There is no place for ambulance chasers in this serious and sacred undertaking.
thing to do. But, I do not want Holocaust victims used as political footballs or tickets for financial gain, One of the lead attorneys in the Swiss case Ed Fagan, is now traveling the world seeking new clients. In Poland he remarked that if Hitler moved across Europe from West to East looting and robbing, he, Mr. Fagan, would move from East to West reclaiming the losses. There is no place for ambulance chasers in this serious and sacred undertaking.

The disbursement of settlement funds has become a tug-of-war among vying groups and lawyers. I believe, first and foremost, that those who have claims should receive payment. Holocaust survivors without specific claims should be included in the disbursement of funds. After claims are satisfied and after needy survivors, who are mostly in Eastern Europe, are provided for, I suggest the remainder go to Israel. Not only would this make an important statement, but Israel has the greatest number of Holocaust survivors who need support. Israel has proportionately more children and grandchildren of survivors than any other nation.

I fear that all the talk about Holocaust era assets is skewing the Holocaust, making the century’s last word on the Holocaust that the Jews died not because they were Jews, but because they had bank accounts, gold, art and property. If you repeat it enough, you establish as "fact" that the reason the Jews were killed was because they had money. To me that is a desecration of the victims, a perversion of why the Nazis had a Final Solution, and too high a price to pay for a justice we can never achieve.

I was asked on a trip to Germany if. I didn’t think it was time to put an end to dealing with the Holocaust. I answered that there could be no end. We owe it to history and to the six million who died to teach the lessons of the Holocaust to new generations. Those lessons will be diminished and skewed by the efforts to put money over morality.

This article appeared in The Wall Street Journal on December 4, 1998

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2001 Anti-Defamation League