May 1, 2003
When Allied troops liberated the concentration camps 58 years ago this spring, they were greeted by living skeletons -- human beings nearly dead from hunger, disease, and savage abuse. The men and women behind the barbed wire were emaciated and traumatized, some so weak they couldn't move. Many were the last remnant of a murdered family; all had witnessed horrors beyond words.
But these pitiful wrecks were not only victims. They were also survivors -- Jews who had managed to outlast Hitler's "final solution," a campaign of antisemitic murder so vast and relentless that a new word had to be coined to fit it: genocide.
Nothing, of course, can ever fully compensate for what Holocaust survivors underwent -- the years of enslavement and humiliation, the plunder of everything they owned, the murder of their loved ones, the destruction of their communities, the starvation and agony and terror.
But attempts to mitigate at least some of their losses have been made, sometimes willingly, sometimes only under pressure. West Germany began paying modest reparations to survivors in the early 1950s, the beginnings of what eventually became a complicated skein of compensation and restitution for those who suffered under the Nazis. Most of these payments have been administered through the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, a coalition of 24 Jewish organizations from around the world.
The Claims Conference, as the coalition is known, has always had a rocky relationship with Holocaust survivors. Until a few years ago, none of its constituent organizations were survivor groups; even today, only two of the 24 are. (Several survivors, though, do sit on the board of directors.) For a long time, many survivors regarded reparations as polluted "blood money" and refused to accept a dime. Of those who did submit claims, some were embittered by what they regarded as the Claims Conference's opaque procedures, long delays, and unexplained denials of eligibility.
But the friction of years past has now flared into warfare.
Ironically, the strife was triggered by a joyful event: the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War. Following the reunification of Germany in 1990, the Claims Conference was named the legal heir to thousands of stolen Jewish properties in the former East Germany, whose communist government had refused for 45 years to acknowledge any responsibility for the Nazis' crimes. Those properties have generated about $1.1 billion in proceeds from sales and rents to date, with "several hundred million still to come," according to Gideon Taylor, the Claims Conference's executive vice president. Some of that money has been used to reimburse the relatively few original Jewish owners (or heirs) who filed claims for their lost property. Who should get the rest?
To many in the Jewish community, it is self-evident that no one has a greater moral claim on that money than the sickest and poorest Holocaust survivors who are still alive. Most are in their 70s and 80s and their plight is declining steadily. For obvious reasons, they have fewer family members who can help them than do most people their age. Many, used to being self-reliant, are ashamed to ask for assistance; others, scarred by their experience under the Nazis, are terrified of being institutionalized. The need for in-home health care among aging survivors is acute, yet a study by Jewish social-welfare agencies reports that most are receiving only half the care they need.
"If money is being collected in the name of survivors," says Israel Arbeiter, president of the American Association of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, "it is obscene not to spend it on survivors who need it."
But the Claims Conference rejects that idea. It allocates just 80 percent of the proceeds from the German Jewish properties to programs for survivors; the remaining 20 percent it reserves for Holocaust research and education. To do otherwise, it argues, would be a betrayal of the 6 million who didn't survive.
"We have a responsibility for them, too," says Julius Berman, who chairs the Claims Conference allocations committee. "We owe it to them that they're not just going to go into oblivion, and the way they lived and the way they died is going to be memorialized for the future."
Israel Singer, the Claims Conference president, has gone even further, speculating publicly -- and rather tactlessly -- on how best to use restitution money "that will not be needed after [the survivors] die." His suggestion: A fund "to address the future needs of the Jewish people," as for example through vouchers for Jewish education.
The arguments on both sides are passionate, and the goodwill of the combatants is not in doubt. But neither, it seems to me, is the overriding moral principle involved: The claims of the living outweigh the claims of the dead.
While the debate over Holocaust restitution rages, real Holocaust survivors suffer. Sixty years after the Nazis were defeated, too many of those they hurt are reduced once again to a life of fear, uncertainty, and pain. The Nazis' war against the Jews, one of the most researched and commemorated events in modern history, is in no danger of being forgotten. But that is exactly the danger confronting our last living links to that evil time.
That cannot be allowed to happen. Keeping faith with the dead is a great and sacred duty. But the dead can always wait another day. The living can't.