Small World

Jewish World Review / Dec. 30, 1998 /11 Teves, 5759

Despite Critics, Nazi Loot Hunt Is Right & Proper

By Richard Z. Chesnoff

IN CASE YOU HADN'T NOTICED, it's now fashionable to scorn efforts to recoup assets stolen by Hitler and Europe from Holocaust victims and their heirs.

The Anti-Defamation League's Abe Foxman, who once led his own delegation to negotiate with Swiss banking authorities, now charges that the restitution battle is "desecrating the memory" of the Holocaust.

A few usually crystal-clear writers are weighing in with similarly murky criticisms. Jonathan Tobin, one of the brighter voices in American Jewish letters, worries that the rash of "grandstanding" on Swiss loot, Nazi gold and stolen art is "distorting our view of the Holocaust." And recently, syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer attacked what he called the "grotesque scramble for money" that would, he cautioned, revive "Shylockian stereotypes."

Hold on! I agree that the spectacle of shyster lawyers trying to make a fast buck from Holocaust victims is repugnant. And I'm not enthralled by the simmering battle among Jewish organizations for "a piece of the action." As Elan Steinberg of the World Jewish Congress, which has been in the forefront of the restitution struggle, puts it: "No one should be making a profit from the Holocaust."

But that doesn't justify a blanket denunciation of those seeking truth and justice. The WJC has carried on a tough but honorable struggle. And not every lawyer involved in class actions is a money-grubbing ambulance chaser some actually work pro bono and others for what is, by current court standards, minimal amounts. Besides, seeking court intervention is the only way many victims ever receive any compensation. Anyone who doesn't want restitution doesn't have to ask for it.

I also dismiss the argument that wartime looting is "commonplace." So is wartime murder. And just as the mechanized slaughter of 6 million Jews was not commonplace killing, so the systematic, organized despoiling of Europe's Jewish communities and Jews is not akin to soldiers' pilfering watches from civilian houses.

The fact that 50 years have gone by also is irrelevant. History doesn't work overnight. As historian Sidney Zabludoff points out, it took the U.S. more than 30 years to finally come to grips with a much less heinous crime than the Holocaust the forced relocation of Japanese-Americans.

The current battle is not redefining the Holocaust or its perpetrators it's underscoring what happened. And its success will help aging survivors live their last years in dignity, provide for their heirs and give some financial backbone to future Jewish education and communal life, providing the ultimate answer to the Nazis and their helpers: continued Jewish survival.

The weakest and in many ways most dangerous of the neo-revisionist arguments is that struggling for truth will create new anti-Semitism. As former Nazi slave laborer Rudy Kennedy recently told "60 Minutes," "Anti-Semitism is not created by Jews, it's created by non-Jews."

Still, if one follows the skewed logic of the critics, then rather than risk giving anti-Semites a self-fulfilling view of Jews as gold-grubbers, it's better that the money being sought should remain with the Swiss bankers who've sat on it for 50 years, or that the French and Austrians retain the looted paintings and precious books they hoarded, or that the Norwegians, Dutch, Croatians, Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Hungarians, Romanians and others who profited from the Holocaust, keep the plunder they hold.

Best yet, wealthy German industry shouldn't pay its former slave laborers.

As for the aging survivors and their heirs, I guess that giving up the search means they get to feel morally superior happy in the knowledge that they've relieved their critics' discomfort.

JWR contributor and veteran journalist Richard Z. Chesnoff is a senior correspondent at US News And World Report and a columnist at the NY Daily News. His book on the wartime plunder of the Jews, Pack of Thieves, will be published by Doubleday in 1999.


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