Past and Present

Jewish World Review Jan. 3, 2000 / 24 Teves, 5760

Sudden Interest in WWII
Justice Has Many Causes

By Richard Z. Chesnoff

YOU SEE THE HEADLINES almost daily: "Swiss Banks Agree to Settlement," "German Industry to Compensate Aged Slave Laborers," "Insurance Firms Face Holocaust Claims."

But why has justice been so slow? Why has it taken until the end of the millennium to raise questions about World War II that should have been asked at the war's end more than 50 years ago? Questions like, what happened to the billions stolen from Hitler's Holocaust victims? What was the complicity of the nations occupied by the Nazis? How truly neutral were the neutrals? Did the U.S. and other Allies do enough to seek justice for the survivors?

Econophone I've recently been on a cross-country tour to promote my new book, Pack of Thieves: How Hitler & Europe Plundered the Jews and Committed the Greatest Theft in History and it's the question everyone asks: "Why now, why has it taken so long?"

As with almost any revisiting of history, there is no single reason. The enormity of the Holocaust makes it impossible ever to close this savage chapter of history --- nor should we. And yet the very passage of time --- and the great political changes in Eastern Europe --- have opened troves of long-hidden or long-ignored documents.

This paper trail has provoked questions that no one asked before. And it has produced an unprecedented transparency, much of it under harsh international pressure, as happened in Switzerland.

It's also true that for years, no one wanted to raise many of these questions. No sooner was World War II over than the West was caught up in the Cold War. TrakdataFearful of losing new allies, America believed it had little time to waste on battles that seemingly were over. That's how the Swiss managed to pocket almost 75% of the millions in looted gold they'd fenced for the Nazis.

Many Holocaust survivors were too traumatized to press their claims --- or feared new anti-Semitism if they did. Those who tried found themselves stonewalled by banks or faced with impossible demands from bureaucrats, such as for death certificates from Auschwitz. Most were more interested in finding any surviving family members (although few did).

In this country, the majority of Jews just wanted to fit in and not rock the postwar boat. And the activists were preoccupied --- first with resettling displaced persons, then with building Israel, next with freeing Soviet Jews and so on.

All that has changed. A younger, more secure generation is finally demanding justice and long-overdue, often badly needed, compensation for the 400,000 aged Holocaust survivors still among us.

This compensation is one of the century's most important reckonings --- a lesson to all who believe that ethnic hatred excuses murder and plunder.

What are the lessons of this episode?

One thing is certain: We must teach future generations that even under the threat of death, decent people can respond to evil with bravery and caring. Recently, the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, a New York-based group dedicated to helping those who sheltered Jews from the Nazis, honored 74-year-old Wanda Anishkewicz of Belarus, a Pole whose family hid four members of a local Jewish family, saving them from slaughter.

In an inspiring documentary directed by filmmaker Gaylen Ross, Anishkewicz explains simply but profoundly why she helped: "These were our neighbors. These were our friends."

The reason we face issues of belated justice is because too few were ready to say the same when they could have and should have.

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 latest book is Pack of Thieves: How Hitler & Europe Plundered the Jews and Committed the Greatest Theft in History.


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