Jewish World Review May 6, 2003 / 4 Iyar, 5763
Help the living before the dead
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.
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Jeff Jacoby is a Boston Globe columnist. Comment by clicking here.
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