Never Paid in Full

What Holocaust reparations can teach us about seemingly immeasurable debts

A ceiling covered in faces of victims of the Holocaust at Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center, in Jerusalem

Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center, in Jerusalem (Israel Tourism Ministry)

In January 1952, as the Israeli Knesset (parliament) gathered in Jerusalem to debate whether to enter into discussion with West Germany over financial reparations for the Holocaust, a crowd of more than fifteen thousand people assembled outside to protest. The demonstration, which included oppositional voices from the left and the right, became violent. Protesters threw rocks as police attacked the crowd with clubs and tear gas, and more than three hundred people were injured. 

The Knesset agreed to enter negotiations, ultimately signing an agreement with West Germany seven months later, but intense objection continued. One month after the agreement was signed, Dov Shilansky, a Lithuanian Holocaust survivor and future Speaker of the Knesset, was arrested, tried, and found guilty of carrying a pack of dynamite en route to bomb the Israeli Foreign Ministry in protest; others sent parcel bombs to West German bureaucrats, including the then-chancellor of West Germany, Konrad Adenauer. Protesters, many of them Holocaust survivors, asserted that entering into discussions over reparations was akin to forgiving the Nazis. 

In the years following the Holocaust, survivor immigrants in Israel represented a challenging counterpoint to the country’s identity as a bastion of Jewish strength. That Jews could not only be beaten, dehumanized, and enslaved, but also murdered in great numbers, did not fit the Israeli narrative. For some survivors, the need for legitimization of their experiences outweighed the importance of financial restitution. The idea that financial indemnity, known in German as Wiedergutmachung or “making good again,” could truly make anything good again threatened to further silence the experiences of survivors and downplay their incalculable losses. 

The scale of the atrocities of the Holocaust indeed seems immeasurable. The systematic, state-sponsored persecution and murder of six million Jews by the Nazi regime and its collaborators left a void that touched every Jewish community on the continent. Two-thirds of European Jewish life was destroyed. Entire towns were wiped out, as were entire families and extended families. Many communal organizations, storehouses of records, and oral and written traditions were erased. There are countless victims of the genocide whose names will never be known because everyone who knew them was murdered, while the places they lived and the records carrying their names were destroyed. Holocaust survivors erupted in anger at the notion that money alone could ever, as Adenauer put it, “make moral and material amends” for the “unspeakable crimes” of the German people.

But efforts to exact payment for the Holocaust were already under way before the protests began. In 1947, less than two years after the end of the Second World War, a law was enacted in the American zone of occupied Germany calling for the restoration of property seized “on racial, political or religious grounds” and the formation of an organization to make claims for property of the murdered and use funds to provide for survivors. In 1951 this organization, named the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany (commonly known as the Claims Conference) was established in New York as a partnership between twenty-three Jewish organizations from eight nations. Its founding mission was twofold: “to obtain funds for the relief, rehabilitation, and resettlement of Jewish victims of Nazi persecution, and to aid in rebuilding Jewish communities and institutions that were devastated by the Nazis”; and “to gain indemnification for injuries inflicted on individual victims of Nazi persecution and restitution for properties confiscated by the Nazis.”

In response to the protests in Jerusalem, the Claims Conference affirmed that no sum could “make good the destruction of human life or cultural values” or the destruction of European Jewish life. Nevertheless, they remained steadfast that the theft of Jewish material assets by Nazis during the Holocaust demanded restitution. Thus in its establishment the Claims Conference defined the losses of the Holocaust as debts with both moral and material legitimacy and identified the limitations of financial repayment of these moral claims. 

Since 1951, the Claims Conference has acted as a third-party negotiator between governments and individual Holocaust survivors to collect payment for debts including tangible losses (household furnishings, personal items, bank accounts, and the like) and labor. Agreements have been reached with more than five thousand German companies, including Krupps, Siemens & Halske, Daimler-Benz, and Volkswagen, for the deep debts incurred through the use of Holocaust-era forced and slave labor. Small annuities or one-time payments have also been made available to those who performed hard labor for negligible pay in ghettos. 

The Claims Conference also sought compensation for intangible debts for theft of health, well-being, and future professional advancement. Included in these categories were restitution for the financial damage exacted by harmful immigration restrictions in countries where Jewish refugees fled, forced emigration, expulsion and detainment, resettlement, and subsequent loss of professional opportunity.

To qualify for Holocaust reparations, survivors had to provide a narrative account of what happened to them. In the 1990s, staff at Jewish Family & Child Service (JFCS) in Portland took on the job of collecting these narratives in Oregon. For many survivors, this was their first opportunity to speak about the trauma they had experienced during the war. Jill Neuwelt, originally from Austria and fluent in German, was an early designated advocate at JFCS for survivors seeking reparations. While all applications required a brief narrative of about a page, Neuwelt remembers some survivors providing up to seven pages of testimony, far exceeding the amount required for the application. The otherwise brief application process sometimes required several appointments, as survivors recounted their stories in their entirety, sometimes for the first time. 

“I think they were happy somebody was listening,” Neuwelt says. Some survivors’ children remarked that she knew more about their parents than they did. If accepted, applications during this time usually resulted in one-time payments of a couple thousand dollars at most. “As we started talking,” Neuwelt recalls, “being able to share the story was more important than getting the money.” 

Holocaust survivors who ended up in Oregon after the war generally focused on rebuilding their lives: finishing interrupted educations, learning English, joining the workforce, having families for the first time or rebuilding families after the murder of loved ones, raising children, and enjoying leisure. While local survivors were ready to focus on something other than loss, there is no doubt they faced challenges other Oregonians did not. One story in particular haunts me. Sixteen-year-old Miriam Greenstein, having survived three concentration camps and regained her health after being at the brink of death, was among the first Jewish Displaced Persons to leave Europe after the war, joining her only living relative, her uncle, in Portland. After working tirelessly to learn English and graduating from Grant High School in 1948 with peers her age, marrying, and training in interior design, Greenstein was offered a job with a local design firm, only to be thrown out of the office when the hiring manager discovered her Jewish last name. Such anti-Semitism was just one of many factors that disproportionately affected Holocaust survivors after the war—factors that simultaneously manifested economically and psychologically.

After collecting many narratives, Neuwelt saw the potential benefit of being able to connect survivors with one another in a community where they could share their stories. She organized Café Europa, a monthly social gathering of European survivors and refugees that continues to meet to this day. For some survivors, the benefit of the reparations application lay more in bearing witness and finding community support than in receiving financial assistance, but it was the institution of financial reparations that created the conditions for this healing process to take place.

With most debts, the relationship between the debtor and the person owed ends when the debt is paid in full. Holocaust reparations payments that are ongoing suggest, to the contrary, that this debt can never be paid in full. Ongoing payment denies the payer the reward of coming out of debt, but it also keeps the recipient in relationship with the payer. Some local survivors and reparations advocates remember friends and acquaintances wanting nothing to do with reparations payments because they simply wanted no connection to this “blood money,” past trauma, or the nations who were responsible for it. In rejecting payment, they rejected the ongoing relationship and the notion that amends can be made with money alone, reifying the assertion that a deeper debt has yet to be paid.

To deal with this deeper debt, the Claims Conference instituted abstract categories of indebtedness, such as funding for Holocaust education programs, historical documentation, and research. These categories provide a new way of thinking about the ongoing connection between reparations payments and past trauma, offering a model for the measurement of debt beyond that which can be quantified. Documentation, research, and education are all ways of ensuring that knowledge of the Holocaust continues into the future. The ultimate goal of these payments is not the reward of coming out of debt, but rather the continuation of memory. 

Holocaust reparations are far from a perfect system. While a wide range of types of restitution has become available to survivors, applicants often spend years applying for reparations only to be denied. Reasons for denial include fleeing to escape the Nazis along with non-Jews, having a non-Jewish mother, and performing forced labor as a child, rather than as an adult. Those whose applications succeed often receive only small payments, and an overwhelming number of survivors died before receiving any compensation at all. One of the greatest challenges to the effectiveness of reparations payments today remains the lack of awareness among survivors: often only those in touch with social service agencies or other survivors are aware that these may be available to them.

Reparations payments have disproportionately benefited survivors living in the United States, Israel, and Western Europe, whereas people living in former Eastern Bloc countries have only recently been able to apply for restitution and have been rejected more frequently. Reparations payments have thus disproportionately allowed certain survivors to claim the identity of survivor and to share their stories. This effect ripples out: recent research, publications, and exhibits that focus on the experiences of Eastern European Jews show that millions of people living in long-established Jewish communities were murdered with guns in the Eastern European countryside as Nazi invasions pressed eastward, challenging the narrative that concentration and death camps were the central sites of atrocity during the Holocaust.

Despite their flaws, Holocaust reparations offer a model by which we might assess restitution for other oppressed populations. Reparations payments provide measurable ways to offset the long-term financial effects of oppression. They are also a confirmation of the experiences of survivors that carry the legitimacy of international law. They affirm not only that loss happened, but also that it is in the past, allowing survivors to see themselves in relationship to past atrocity rather than in the midst of it. To refuse to pay reparations in the face of measurable financial disparities is to trap victims of atrocity in an ongoing cycle of abuse and trauma.

The list of damages that have resulted in Holocaust reparations claims reads like a historical credit card statement backed by the legitimacy of numerous governments and legal precedents. Reading this list, I have to wonder what the world would be like if we assigned monetary value to other losses caused by discrimination and persecution, up to and including those of the present day. 

The United States as we know it is built upon a foundation of colonialism, the genocide of Native Americans, and the appropriation of land and countless resources by settlers. This nation was further established through the Atlantic slave trade, the economic engine through which slave traders, farmers, industrialists, merchants, transportation operators, bankers, insurers, and investors nationwide extracted riches from the land at the cost of tens of millions of lives over the course of 250 years. Inequity has grown on this violent foundation: racist policies such as redlining and predatory lending practices; the disproportionate arrest and imprisonment of Black and Latino people; the continuation of slavery in the form of inmate labor in private prisons; and the ongoing theft of Native American land and resources. These practices have resulted in the extraction of great profit. The debts incurred by these crimes are quantifiable.

Recent studies of Nazi ideology such as Timothy Snyder’s Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning and James Q. Whitman’s Hitler’s American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law suggest racist US policies bear a degree of culpability for the Holocaust itself. The Nazi concept of Lebensraum, or “living space” for the so-called Aryan race, drew inspiration from the American concept of Manifest Destiny. A foundational part of Nazi ideology, its realization depended on the construction of so-called inferior races and the consequent dehumanization and murder of Eastern Europeans, including Jews, to clear the way for those deemed worthy. Adolf Hitler admired the treatment of Native Americans in the US and may have modeled the idea of concentration camps on reservations. Likewise, when confronting what became known as the “Jewish question,” historians agree that Nazi leaders looked to laws in the United States that favored immigration bans, segregation, and legalized discrimination. 

Holocaust reparations show us that it is possible for governments, agencies, and individuals to recognize the infliction of harm done in the past, to agree that inequity has grown from that harm, to measure inequity as it multiplies in the present day, and to respond with financial compensation. After the Holocaust, the first step in this process was symbolic: a conversation between two parties in which one admitted culpability. The United Nations treaty signed between Israel and West Germany in September 1952 began with the admission on the part of West Germany that “unspeakable criminal acts were perpetrated against the Jewish people during the National-Socialist regime of terror.” 

The first step toward reparations for oppressed communities in the United States must likewise start with the admission of responsibility from the perspective of perpetrators and those who continue to enjoy the spoils of destruction, along with a commitment to offer compensation for generations of violent theft. As with Holocaust reparations, early steps toward reparations must include financial support for the formation of an organization to make claims on behalf of those wronged and murdered and their heirs. What steps can we take in our communities to garner support for such an organization? What might a financial reconciliation commission look like in the US today? In Oregon? 

The nearly seventy-year legacy of reparations following the Holocaust underscores the importance of at least entertaining considerations of reparations payments for those who have been systematically oppressed, ethnically cleansed, and murdered in mass numbers in the US. What do we risk by failing to assess and exact payment for debts that have yet to be measured? Without reparations, the atrocities of the past remain present.


Economics, History, Justice, Violence


2 comments have been posted.

The question of Reparations is not new, has come up time and time again. However, I do not believe many have ever thought about the legal and legislative nightmare that would unfold by doing such, would affect all of us in ways we can not even realize now or understand. While what happened in the past in many cases are horrible. However, are we sure, we want to open up that can of worms that would further add to an injury that is slowly healing? How many groups would be able to make a claim, how financially secure is the country to withstand the onslaught of lawsuits and demands that will come from just a door being opened, and how much of a burden will be left to the very generations to come?

Joseph Watkins | May 2018 | Stayton, Oregon

No mention of the Nakba? Of nearly a million Palestinians forced to leave their land and homes to live as refugees in their own land? I doubt the sincerity of whatever it is you are trying to say about reparations if you can not even acknowledge the incremental genocide of the Palestinian people by Israel.

Damian Dlugolecki | April 2018 |

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