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Jewish World Review Dec. 13, 1999 /4 Teves, 5760

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan Tobin
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The Bottom Line of the Holocaust -- HEADLINES WERE ONCE AGAIN made as a commission jointly appointed by Swiss banks and international Jewish organizations completed a three-year audit of how Swiss institutions effectively robbed many survivors and their heirs of their assets.

The Swiss scandal is just one of a whole range of revelations about looted gold, insurance policies, stolen art and compensation for slave labor that have been brought to light in recent years. The stories reveal how almost all the countries of Europe participated in the systematic robbery of Jews during the course of the Holocaust.

The question is, how will these revelations and the massive Jewish effort to force the offenders to pay reparations for their crimes (as well as to return assets to victims and their heirs) affect our collective view of history itself? Will the litigation and negotiations over billions of dollars of assets and property cause us to lose sight of the most important fact — the murder of 6 Million Jews?

Some survivors I have spoken to fear the focus on looted assets may reduce the emotional scars they bear to a question of money. The Holocaust, they insist, is about Jews who were murdered by the Germans and their collaborators, not a treasure hunt for lost gold.

I’ve also heard Eli Rosenbaum, head of the Justice Department’s Office of Special Investigations that locates and prosecutes Nazi war criminals in the United States, bitterly complain that while his office’s herculean efforts to deport murderers gets no coverage, accounts of the fate of stolen paintings make the front pages.

Added to that is the unseemly scramble for some of the money that is now coming out of places like Germany and Switzerland. Though many lawyers have worked without compensation to bring about some measure of justice for those robbed, others are participating in what seems to be a tawdry ambulance chase after big bucks.

The squabbling that has taken place among some Jewish organizations over who will get credit for the battle against the Europeans and who will control the funds that will go to Jewish communal purposes is equally unseemly.

Yet, to those who have dedicated themselves to the cause of restitution for the economic aspect of the Holocaust, these arguments ring hollow. For them, the battle is a sacred crusade that must be pursued to the final accounting.

One such person is Richard Z. Chesnoff, a senior correspondent at U.S. News & World Report. Chesnoff, a veteran journalist who has been covering major world events since the Six-Day War, has spent much of the last four years researching these issues. His labors have paid off in a fine new book titled "Pack of Thieves: How Hitler and Europe Plundered the Jews and Committed the Greatest Theft in History," recently published by Doubleday.

Chesnoff’s book is the most approachable volume in the growing list of books on this topic for the general reader. Using the skills of an investigative journalist, the author gives a good overview of all of the economic crimes: the lies of the “neutral” Swiss who acted as “fences” for stolen property that the Nazis looted, as well as the thievery committed by the other neutrals and occupied countries.


However, the author is worried by all the skepticism about the concentration on financial restitution. In the book, he lashes out at critics of the excesses of the process, labeling them part of a “growing revisionist backlash.”

As one of those whom Chesnoff has placed in this category (along with some far more famous names, such as the Anti-Defamation League’s Abe Foxman and the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Charles Krauthammer), I must take issue with that phrase. Given the associations with the term “revisionist” in the current context of Holocaust historiography, it is a silly and extreme accusation. He needs to recognize that concerns about the treasure-hunt aspect are genuine and need to be addressed.

Where Chesnoff is right is when he notes that the idea that this issue will set off anti-Semitism is nonsense. Anti-Semitism is created by anti-Semites, who are prepared to demonize any aspect of Jewish life, and not by Jews.

It might be instructive to remember that this debate is not new. It actually dates back to the original decision by the State of Israel to accept reparations from Germany in 1952. Though little remembered, it was one of the most violent and emotional political controversies in the short history of the state.

When Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion accepted West Germany’s offer to negotiate for reparations, many Jews, and especially Israel’s then-opposition-party leader Menachem Begin, were outraged.

The Holocaust had left Jews with one thing only, Begin said: their dignity. Ben-Gurion wanted “to destroy what honor we have achieved in our suffering, all for a few dirty million dollars ... . In what tribe, however primitive, does the son of a murdered man go directly to the murderer and ask for reparations?” Begin asked.

Ben-Gurion replied that the nearly $1 billion offered could help build the State of Israel, the only true memorial to the slain. Since the money came from lost Jewish assets, should the murderers be allowed to be the heirs of their victims?

The problem was, both sides had a point. Begin was right in that allowing the Germans to pay for their crimes with money did nothing to assuage Jewish pain, but served to legitimize a rebuilt Germany that had largely escaped punishment. But Ben-Gurion was also right. Israel needed those German funds to help absorb the wave of immigrants from Arab countries that was overwhelming its resources in the early ’50s. Who better to pay for the building up of the Jewish homeland than the Germans?

In the end, Ben-Gurion’s view prevailed. Having the criminals compensate the victims may have been emotionally unsatisfying, but it served a larger purpose.

So, too, with the discussion of the lost Swiss assets. Chesnoff supports the proposal of Edgar Bronfman (whose World Jewish Congress is the hero of the struggle for justice on this issue) to use a third of the restitution funds to create “an international foundation that would benefit both Israel and the rest of the world Jewish community with massive amounts of money for Jewish education and communal continuity.”

As Chesnoff writes, “What better memorial to this multitude of innocent victims can there be than to guarantee the future of Jewish life? And what better response to Hitler ... than Jewish survival.”

Reducing the suffering of millions into a mere treasure hunt would be a travesty. But it is never too late for justice.

JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. Let him know what you think by clicking here.

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©1999, Jonathan Tobin