stories 38 - 45
1948 - 1956
SEEKING REDRESS FOR HITLER'S VICTIMS
To avoid revenge and retaliation, victims of oppression must know that their oppressors have been brought to justice; and efforts must be made to heal the wounds of those who have suffered. There were no precedents for adequately coping with the Holocaust. New legal concepts and new laws would be required. Restitution of expropriated property was only a beginning. Injuries had to be compensated and new organizations were needed to help victims prove their claims. The programs of restitution, compensation, and legal assistance were all intertwined. Staring in 1948, I was deeply involved in all of these endeavors. Concentration camp victims who had survived with only their tattoos and scarred memories needed help urgently and desperately. The complexity of problems, and their solutions, could hardly be imagined.
some unanticipated consequences
a treaty to compensate victims
Story 38: Restitution of Confiscated Property
My administrative work in wrapping up the Office of the Chief of Counsel for War Crimes was almost over when my wife and I prepared to return home to a normal life. But I was unexpectedly recruited for a new assignment by a representative of the world’s leading Jewish organizations. Military Government law provided that properties seized by the Nazis in the U.S. zone of occupation should be returned to the rightful owners. If no owners or heirs could be found, the assets could be claimed by a charitable organization pledging to use the proceeds to benefit survivors of persecution. A consortium of prominent Jewish organizations formed the “Jewish Restitution Successor Organization” (JRSO) and they needed someone to set up and manage such a challenging endeavor. They didn’t really think anything much would come of it, and they were not prepared to invest their limited charitable funds into such an uncertain enterprise. Nevertheless, they felt it was their moral duty to try. They concluded that I was the right man to do the trying.
Before offering me the job, their representative, an American lawyer named Joel Fischer, came to Nuremberg from the office of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, a respected philanthropic organization, then headquartered in Paris. Before he approached me, he wisely talked to my wife who was packing our bags to return to New York. The “Joint” wanted a two-year commitment. Gertrude, knowing my tempo and temperament, thought it would only take me a year to complete the assignment. Although she had eagerly joined me for our honeymoon in Germany in 1946, she never felt comfortable in Germany. Yet, the moral imperative of possibly being able to help Holocaust survivors (including some of her own relatives) could not be turned down. In August 1948, I accepted the job and designated myself the “Director-General” of the JRSO, knowing that Germans would be impressed by someone who was both a Director and a General. We did not imagine that ten years would pass from the time we left home before we could return to America—together with our four children, all born in Nuremberg. Some honeymoon!
The Military Government law under which the JRSO was to operate stipulated that all claims had to be filed by the end of 1948, only four months away. It seemed impossible, within that brief period of a few months, to get organized, find and train staff, and identify and claim all the properties that had been unlawfully seized. I promptly called on the U.S. Military Governor, General Lucius Clay, with a request to extend the deadline. The General’s main concern at that time was that Soviet troops might try to take over all of Berlin and possibly all of Germany. (U.S. personnel were required to keep provisions in the trunk of their cars at that time, in case emergency evacuation was ordered.) Clay explained that the sooner the restitution program was out of the way the better. He was, understandably, opposed to any extension.
I argued that a massive search-and-claim operation would require immediate cash for German staff and equipment, and it was not morally justifiable to ask Jewish charities to put up their scarce dollar resources to pay local German personnel when the outcome was so uncertain. I asked for a grant from “occupation funds” to enable me to meet the rigid goal set in the military law. He noted that the German currency, which the occupying allied forces used to pay their own local expenses in Germany, were all under combined control of the four victorious powers. He was sure that the Soviets would never agree to such a use since they didn’t believe in private ownership of property anyway. He doubted if the British or French would agree either, since they had not yet enacted similar restitution laws for their zones. It looked rather hopeless.
When confronting a hopeless situation, it is advisable to find a better solution. I turned to my fallback position. I promised Clay that I would do my very best to meet the short filing deadline if I were given the tools to do the job. I proposed that instead of the grant, which would not meet with quadripartite approval, that he give me a loan of German Marks from the U.S. share of occupation funds. That did not require the consent of the others, and I could repay the loan when restitution funds were recovered. He asked if that could be done legally. I replied that I had in my pocket a memorandum that said it could. The sizeable sum of one million marks was promptly advanced, and I raced away to get started.
Under supervision of a small cadre of refugee Jewish lawyers, German staff was hired and sent to scour every real-estate registry for every property transfer after 1933 by anyone with a name that sounded Jewish. Military Government law required persons who acquired Jewish property during the Hitler years to report the transfer. I requisitioned a large hall that had been used as a recreational center by Baltic nationals, many of whom had been Nazi collaborators. A large pool of JRSO typists worked 24 hours round the clock to hammer out the claims that poured in from the investigators in the field. On the final day of the deadline, at the final hours of the deadline, the JRSO packed full a U.S. Army Ambulance with over 163,000 claims that were rushed off to the official filing center. I was satisfied that nothing had been missed. I phoned General Clay to tell him that no extension was necessary. I think I gained his confidence on all restitution problems thereafter. I don’t think I gained many friends among the Balts.
There is a sequel to this story that occurred years later, but perhaps should be recited here. The million mark loan approved by General Clay, although a considerable sum at the time, was soon spent. Shortly thereafter, East Berlin and East Germany were politically severed from the West—the cold war was on. General Clay was replaced by a Harvard-trained lawyer named John J. McCloy.
McCloy’s assignment was to tie West Germany firmly into the fold of democratic nations. He recognized that what Germany did in the field of restitution would play an important role in her acceptance back into the family of nations. He was an important influence over German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer and others in the West German government in persuading them to go as far as possible to meet the compensation demands of Israel and Nazi victims. It was logical that I should turn to McCloy for help when I needed more funds for the JRSO.
I explained to McCloy that the money advanced by General Clay’s authority had already been spent in carrying out the complicated restitution mandates. I confessed that some money was coming in and was being distributed to the victims of Nazi persecution. I noted that concentration camp survivors still in Germany needed help desperately to enable them to move out of the Displaced Persons camps, a goal shared by both Germans and Americans. It would be politically and morally untenable, I argued, to give priority to the wrongdoers by returning borrowed funds to the now prospering German State while its victims remained in such desperate need. Agreeing, McCloy approved the loan to the JRSO of another million marks.
The same moral arguments prevailed yet again when the loan was renewed for 3 million marks. Then came a moment of truth and opportunity. Among the defendants convicted as war criminals in Nuremberg was the industrialist Alfried Krupp. He had been found guilty of seizure of foreign properties and inhumane treatment of concentration camp inmates as slave laborers. He was sentenced to forfeit all of his property, and to be imprisoned for 12 years. In 1958, as part of the overall humanitarian review of all of the Nuremberg sentences, Krupp’s sentence was reduced to time served, and all of his property was restored by order of McCloy. During my frequent contact with the High Commissioner, I resisted the pressures of the Jewish organization to try to influence McCloy’s clemency considerations. I respected McCloy and recognized that he was struggling with a difficult matter of personal conscience. Now I could no longer remain silent.
After McCloy’s Krupp clemency decision, I went to his office in Bonn with a request. I reminded him of the JSRO loans of three million marks to carry out restitution responsibilities. If he insisted, I would repay those loans in full. “But,” I said, “I think that would be morally wrong. It should not be the victims who bear the expense of recovering only a portion of what was stolen from them. It should be at the expense of the wrongdoers.” As he had just given back to a convicted war criminal assets worth probably more than three billion marks, I asked him to cancel the debt “owed” by the victims of Nazi persecution. McCloy listened somberly and paused. “Can I do that legally?” I replied, “I have a memo in my pocket that says you can.” McCloy looked up and said, “The debt is cancelled.”
Years later, when McCloy had passed his 90th birthday and was recording his memoirs, we were having lunch at the Harvard Club in New York and I reminded him of the JRSO debt cancellation story. The next day he phoned me from home and said, “Ben, you know I might have gone to jail for that!” “I know,” I replied, “but I would have gone with you.” We both laughed, knowing we had done the right thing.
Story 39: Retrieving Sacred Treasures
Hitler’s anti-Semitic “intellectual” Minister Alfred Rosenberg was responsible for assembling and preserving Jewish cultural objects that could prove the perfidy of the Jewish race, religion and ideology. In the Eastern territories overrun by Germany, the “Einsatzstab Rosenberg” collected Jewish torahs, religious ceremonial decorations, prayer books, and other sacred texts and objects. Much of this material was eventually stored in a large warehouse in Wiesbaden that came under control of U.S. Military Government. The Jewish Restitution Successor Organization was entrusted with responsibility for the legal and equitable distribution of the captured booty. Of course, I had no experience whatsoever with the disposition of such artifacts.
It was obvious that stolen assets should be returned to their former owners. But that was easier said than done. In most cases, the former owners had been murdered by Nazi extermination programs and the Jewish congregations were no longer in existence. What to do? We concluded that we would do the best we could under the circumstances. But to those who viewed these materials as holy, that may not have been good enough. It posed challenges of faith versus reason that could have stumped even Solomon or Maimonides who wrote a famous book to guide the perplexed.
Dispatching the Torahs was relatively easy. Many of them could be identified as coming from well known synagogues in Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Ukraine, and other centers of Jewish learning. Where there was still a functioning synagogue in a particular area, the Torahs, or as many as could be put to good use, were shipped back to their former congregations. But that was rare. Most Jewish communities in the East had been totally destroyed. Most survivors had sought a new life in Israel where the Ministry of Religion was happy to distribute the needed scrolls. A refugee community starting a new congregation in a strange land also received the rescued tablets of Jewish law.
Many of the Torahs, however, were damaged. I soon learned that a damaged Torah cannot be used in prayer. If the name of the Lord, as printed on the sacred parchment, has been damaged in any way, no repair is permissible. The Torah must be sent to Israel for burial in accordance with ancient Hebrew rituals. Other repairs are possible, but only by orthodox Jewish scribes. So we arranged to have a group of scribes come from Israel to work under the supervision of the respected American Joint Distribution Committee (“The Joint”) offices in Paris. In one of my frequent visits to the Paris office, I encountered another problem that was rather perplexing.
We maintained strict inventory controls. Torahs were valuable. Every Torah coming in and going out had to be accounted for. Unfortunately, there was no computerized accounting available at that time, and security was not as tight as it should have been. I thought I detected a discrepancy in the number of Torahs we shipped to Paris and the number distributed or on hand. To ascertain the facts and confirm my suspicions would require a detailed examination—particularly of the orthodox scribes who had access to the sacred scrolls. That could prove to be very embarrassing. Besides, what would we do if we found that an old rabbi from Israel had pinched a Torah or two?
So I turned to the learned rabbi in charge of the operation (who was not completely beyond suspicion) and told him that I had a problem. I said I suspected that some of the Torahs may have disappeared, and I didn’t know whether purloining a Torah was a blessed act or a criminal offense. I asked, “Do I have to look up to heaven or down to the Devil to find the culprit?” He replied in Yiddish, “Do not look up or down—take my advice — kik vek!” (Look away!) I learned from that rabbi that sometimes the best thing to do may be to do nothing. That guiding advice has been very valuable to me throughout my life.
Not all rabbis adopt so benign an approach. When dealing with the captured ceremonial objects such as candelabra, silver plates, wine goblets, Torah crowns, and all of the related paraphernalia used in a variety of Jewish rituals and holidays, we followed the same basic principles. Wherever possible, we tried to identify and locate the former owner and return the property. Where the property was damaged, we tried to repair it. This was sometimes even more difficult than repairing a scroll. Missing parts of ceremonial objects could be scattered among several different boxes. The experts we brought from Israel’s Bezalel Museum, two fine gentlemen named Shunami and Narkiss, searched long and diligently, trying to restore every object. In the end there were many broken pieces, including table silver and broken candlesticks, which were beyond repair and had to be considered as scrap metal. After long deliberation, in which other members of my executive staff participated, we found what seemed a good solution.
We shipped these broken bits of scrap silver to England where there was a well-reputed smelting company run by the Jewish Goldsmith family. They were instructed to melt down the objects so that the proceeds to be distributed by “The Joint” and the Jewish Agency for Israel to the most needy Nazi survivors. Soon thereafter, I sailed for New York to make my annual report to the JRSO Board of Directors. I was confident that I might receive their praise and possibly also their blessing. I learned that one should not count his blessings too soon.
I proudly reported to the Board about the work done in recovering Jewish properties, homes, businesses, art works, Torah scrolls, and silver ceremonial objects that had been returned to owners or made available to needy congregations. Board members smiled happily at the thought that, by listening to my report, they had vicariously participated in such noble work. I then detailed what had been done with the smelted scrap silver. Before I was quite through, a hand was being waved furiously by Rabbi Isaac Lewin, the respected head of the orthodox Union of American Hebrew Congregations. He rose slowly, glowered at me fiercely, and said in a trembling voice, “Do my ears believe me? Did I hear you say that you took these sacred Jewish objects, the last remnant of our murdered ancestors, and you sent them to a CREM-A-TORRIUM??” There was silence. Stunned, I stuttered that we had done the best we could under the circumstances. It was only many years later that I felt I had been forgiven by the Rabbi.
I recall another incident regarding sacred treasures. General Lucius Clay, the U.S. Military Governor in Germany, summoned me to Berlin. It appeared that a Jewish U.S. Army Chaplain, (I believe it was Captain Phillip Bernstein) had raided the warehouse in which the Germans had stored the most valuable Jewish religious books. Being a man who obviously believed in restitution, the Captain backed an army ambulance up to the warehouse and filled it with Nazi loot. He arranged to ship it to Israel on a refugee ship—probably also illegal—as a brave gesture of retaliatory justice.
It turned out that many of the volumes had belonged to an anti-Nazi Christian sect (I believe it was the Templars) who had acquired the sacred tomes lawfully long before the Nazis came to power. They wanted their property back. General Clay gave me an order that since I was in charge of Jewish restitution, I had better get those ancient books restituted back to their rightful non-Jewish anti-Nazi owners. He gave me a long list of the missing volumes. I promised to do the best I could.
On my next trip to Israel, I raised the restitution question with the appropriate government representatives. They were apologetic and promised to restore what had been erroneously taken, but unfortunately, the books had already been sent to the Hebrew University on Mt. Scopus, and even more unfortunately, that territory was in Arab hands. They promised to correct the error as soon as the military situation allowed. I reported the facts to General Clay. Nothing more could be done. What finally happened to the books, I do not know. I hope they were restored. I “kik vek!” I don’t ask!
Story 40: Reclaiming Cemeteries
It came about that, beginning around 1949, I became the custodian of several hundred Jewish cemeteries located throughout the Federal Republic of Germany. I did not own them personally, of course, but they fell into the category of properties previously owned by Jewish congregations that had been dissolved by Nazi decree. By virtue of the U.S. Military Government restitution law, the Jewish Restitution Successor Organization became the lawful title holder. The truth is that, never having been an occupant thereof, I knew very little about the management of cemeteries. Cognizant of my ignorance in this delicate field, I was relieved when I managed to persuade a committee of three distinguished rabbinical scholars, including the Chief Rabbi of Israel, to advise me on all religious practices and prohibitions concerning such holy plots.
Little did I realize what lay in store, if I may use such terminology. First, it was essential to learn precisely what was permissible or impermissible regarding the ancient burial grounds for religious congregations that no longer existed. It was not something taught in my Property class at Harvard, as unfortunately, the Talmud was not assigned reading. My rabbinical council made clear that very special rules apply: once a cemetery, always a cemetery; no flowers can be placed on the casket or grave; if a tombstone falls, it must be left lying where it fell; nothing can ever be done to profane the bodies or memory of the deceased. Honoring these ancient traditions seemed simple enough, but it soon became apparent that dealing with the dead can make life quite complicated for the living.
The ancient German city of Fulda is noted for its large Benedictine Abbey that for centuries helped spread Christianity throughout the land. Catholic Bishops met there regularly to honor the memory of St. Boniface who is buried in its beautiful baroque cathedral. Although Jews had lived in Fulda for many generations, their burial grounds were not nearly as impressive. Soon after the Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933, they completely desecrated the old Jewish cemetery. Following the defeat of Adolf Hitler, a new Jewish community, composed mostly of a handful of refugees from Eastern Europe, again took root there. Mortuary records revealed that a sizeable area of the cemetery had never been used. Since it seemed most unlikely that it would ever be needed by the few Jewish settlers in the Fulda area, the question arose whether the unused grounds could be sold to raise funds for needy survivors of Hitler’s persecutions.
Of course, I referred the question to the rabbinical council. The answer came back that an area that never contained any bodies could not be considered a cemetery. If a wall could be erected to enclose the former burial grounds then the unoccupied portion outside the wall might be sold, providing it was not used for any profane purpose. As the former victims needed money desperately, we were pleased when the local government expressed an interest in purchasing the unused land adjacent to the old Jewish cemetery. To erect an office building to be used by their customs authorities, the Zollamt, city officials were easily persuaded to also build a little park on the site that had been desecrated and to add a plaque to commemorate those who had perished.
Hardly a year had passed when I received an alarming telegram while attending a JRSO Board meeting in New York. A story had appeared in the German press that, while digging the foundation for the parking lot for the new custom house in Fulda, a number of bones, presumed to be from the bodies of Jews, had been disinterred. I cabled my office to seek an immediate injunction to stop all construction. I took the next plane back to Germany. At a meeting with the local Jewish community leaders and the officials of the city of Fulda, it was pointed out that the terms of the sales contract had been clearly violated. Having recently prosecuted SS leaders who had murdered over a million Jews, I was in no mood to tolerate the desecration of Jewish graves by any Germans. I demanded that the building, which was already five stories high and near completion, be torn down immediately and the area restored.
The leaders of the new Jewish community in Fulda asked to speak with me privately. They implored me not to take such a harsh position. They noted that they had to live in Fulda, that the city officials were anti-Nazis who had been most accommodating to the new Jewish settlers, that it was only a small area that had been trespassed, and there was even no certainty that the bones that had been dug up belonged to humans. They argued that their lives in Fulda would be made unbearable if I forced the city to tear down the expensive building. I reluctantly agreed to refer the entire file to the rabbinical council in Jerusalem for its recommendation.
The three learned scholars cited the provisions of the Talmud about respecting the memory and body of the dead and noting particularly that no building of any kind could be placed on top of a Jewish cemetery. Trying to be helpful, they suggested that it would be acceptable if the building could be elevated so that it did not touch the holy ground. How that was to be done was not made clear. It was obvious that the Talmud did not teach engineering. Since no one knew how to raise a five story building, a second opinion seemed called for. To this day, I do not know which brilliant mind gave birth to a solution to our grave problem.
The genius who found the solution noted that only one type of structure was permissible on a Jewish cemetery: a chapel where prayers for the dead could be said. There was apparently nothing in the Talmud that prohibited any structure from being built on top of such a chapel. If therefore, it would be possible to build a chapel under the corner of the building that trespassed on the old cemetery, that corner of the building would not be resting on the cemetery itself, but only on the roof of the newly constructed little synagogue in the cellar. Since that would be Kosher—so to speak—that’s exactly what we did.
Under a tip of the Zollamt, we arranged for the construction of a dignified triangular room no larger than about 15 feet in any direction. A Hebrew inscription, composed in Israel, adorns the wall. Small stained glass windows near the ceiling provide a strained glimpse of the parking lot. Above it stands a monumental five-story office building. None of the drivers who park their cars on the corner of the parking lot has any idea that they are placing their vehicle on the roof of a holy place of eternal worship.
About 10 years later, while traveling in the area, I decided to see what had happened to our rather unique chapel. I found the customs house with no trouble. I walked up to the reception window and asked the young receptionist if I could see the synagogue. She replied politely that the Jewish synagogue was located about two blocks down the road, turn right. I explained that I meant the synagogue in the building. “You must be mistaken” she replied, “this is the Zollamt.” I replied rudely that there had better be a chapel in their cellar or there would be real trouble. The rather startled young lady phoned the building superintendent and reported that an American was at her window insisting that he wanted to visit a Jewish synagogue in the basement. The superintendent said he’d be right down.
Shortly thereafter, an elderly gent came down jangling a bunch of keys. He introduced himself and explained that he had been there when the building was constructed. Yes, there was indeed a Jewish prayer room in the cellar. He led me out to the parking lot, and then down some steps.... He kicked away some cardboard cartons blocking the entrance and unlocked the heavy door. Lo and behold—there was my little synagogue, a bit dusty but quite intact. I asked him if anyone had every visited the room since it was built. “Not to my knowledge,” he said.
If you ever visit Fulda, ask for the old Zollamt. Beneath a large office building that was the old custom house you may find the smallest and most unknown and unused Jewish prayer house in the world. It shall remain in perpetuity as a tribute to Jewish creativity or ingenuity—or something.
While I am on the deadly subject of cemeteries, allow me to interject another story that I hope may be sufficiently morbid to justify the intrusion. It relates to a few small bones that I picked up while visiting the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland around 1958. I was invited to visit that charnel house by the Polish Government and the Polish Red Cross as their token of appreciation for my assistance in obtaining compensation for young Polish Catholic women who had been victims of Nazi medical experiments. It was a heartwarming moment when my plane touched down in Warsaw. A small group of young Polish women had been waiting at the airport in pouring rain to present me with a bouquet of drenched flowers. It was their way of saying “Thank you.” It was more precious to me than gold.
As a former Nuremberg Prosecutor, I was provided with a car and driver and accorded every courtesy. I asked only to be allowed to pay my respects at the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz/Birkenau that had been liberated by the Red Army. What was left of the Auschwitz camp was preserved as a museum. The Museum’s Director, K. Smolen, was a non-Jewish survivor of the camp with a typical Polish unpronounceable and unforgettable first name that I can’t remember. He gave me a detailed tour of the grounds and exhibits, and showed me secret documents that were helpful to the Claims Conference negotiation with the IG Farben company that had built Auschwitz as an unlimited source of expendable slave labor. We walked together along the ramp leading from the freight trains that had once been jammed with helpless prisoners on their last journey. Those who looked strong and healthy had been selected by Nazi doctors, such as Kurt Mengele, to be worked there to death. (As a war crimes investigator at Nuremberg I had pursued the escaped Mengele in vain.) Those who appeared unfit for hard labor—the old, the children and infirm—were hounded directly into the waiting gas chambers. Behind the adjacent crematorium was a large grassy knoll composed of the ashes from the burned bodies, which first had the fat drained off for use as soap marked with the letter “J” for “Jew.”
I wandered alone across the field and wet the ground with my tears. In my anger and despair, I kicked over a large clump of wild grass. In the shallow hole, I noticed a number of small bones that might have come from the fingers of babies. I scooped up the cluster and put it in my pocket. I wanted that gruesome remnant to be a close and constant reminder of why I had to continue the work I was doing. For several years, I carried those little bones with me, in an envelope taken from the luxurious hotel Frankfurter Hof. I did not know that these few unidentified bones would one day prove to be of great value.
Not too long thereafter, I attended a meeting in Bonn with representatives of the West German Finance Ministry and the Ministry of Social Affairs. I was joined by Dr. Ernst Katzenstein, one of my deputies, who was a friendly and jovial person who enjoyed an excellent reputation with the German authorities. The main item on the agenda was to reach an accord regarding the care and maintenance of unused Jewish cemeteries.
Municipalities in Germany traditionally provide burial plots for their local inhabitants in a municipal cemetery. Every citizen has the right to be buried there and to have a tombstone of limited size over the grave. Municipal burials take place next to each other in chronological sequence. After 20 years, the stone must be removed and the same plot is made available for newcomers. This seems quite a sensible arrangement since it serves to limit the mourning period and make effective use of limited space. As far as I know, there have been no complaints from the inhabitants. Jewish burial practices are more sentimental, less orderly, and more enduring. It might have been anticipated that these differences would lead to a clash.
When discussions commenced, the German negotiators were polite and friendly. They readily acknowledged that their predecessor government was responsible for the fact that Jewish cemeteries were burned and desecrated, and that many of the small Jewish communities that had existed in Germany for centuries had disappeared. Sorry about that. They were prepared, within their means as a divided nation that had been impoverished and ruined by war, to see that the grass was cut and the Jewish graves tended in areas where the Jews were all gone. They would receive the same benefits and rights that were accorded to their own German gravesites. Obviously, they had never read the Talmud.
Katzenstein expressed appreciation for their willingness to respect the memory of the dear departed Jewish residents. I explained, as politely as I could, that their offer was understandable and I was grateful for their efforts to reinstate the conditions that would have existed had the wrong not occurred. I noted, however, that the Jewish tradition that had to be respected called for the maintenance of a Jewish cemetery not only for 20 years, but in perpetuity. They rebutted quietly with the argument that we couldn’t really expect the German taxpayers to assume an indefinite burden for Jews that they didn’t even give to their own German citizens. That did it. I exploded! The wrath of Ferencz was upon them!
I shouted at them that if they hadn’t murdered the Jews and driven them out, they would not have any problem with Jewish cemeteries. It was only because of the horrendous Nazi crimes that the subject had to be discussed. I pulled from my pocket the small packet of bones I had picked up at Auschwitz and slammed them on the table. Shaking with anger, I screamed, “Who shall pay? Shall these pay? Then you go and ask them!” Katzenstein, fearing that we would come to blows, ran from the room. The Chairman called a recess and also left the room. I cannot recall any other time in my life when I gave way to such an outburst of anger. It was unjustified. Our negotiating partners were not the ones who committed the crimes, and I regretfully do not recall that I even offered an apology. When the parties reassembled, some 20 minutes later, the German representatives quietly said that they would accept the obligation to honor the Jewish traditions. That meant that the former Jewish cemeteries would be cared for and maintained at German government’s expense forever.
But that’s not quite the end of the story. When I passed the age of 75, I began to suspect that I was probably not immortal. My home in New Rochelle was filled with files and books dealing with my experiences as a war-crimes investigator during the war, as a Nuremberg Prosecutor thereafter, and many hundreds of books and articles covering my years in search of a more humane and peaceful world. Rather than having my heirs deposit this somewhat messy mass into the nearest dumpster, I decided to organize it a bit and donate much of it to the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington to be part of the official archives of the U.S. government.
The archivists were delighted and promptly designated some of the files as “national treasures.” I did not consider a few old and unidentified bones to be a treasure--even though they may have played an important role in saving a fortune for Jewish communities. So I threw them in with my other materials; with a brief explanation. I was aware that collecting Jewish bones was not the way for a nice Jewish boy to behave, but I have described the unusual circumstances and the outcome and hope I will be forgiven by whoever makes such judgments. Strict adherence to Jewish ritual was mandatory at the Holocaust Museum. One day I received a letter asking my permission to dispose of the digits. I replied immediately that all of my rights had been given away and they could do with “my bones” whatever they thought was right. And so, much to my unhappy consternation, my precious bones were sent back to the former concentration camp at Auschwitz where they were reburied. I hope they will rest in peace forever. Amen!
Story 41: Bulk Settlements for Property Claims
The world is so filled with tragedy that it is important to seek some cause for levity to avoid going completely insane. When crying on the inside, if possible, seek a balance by trying to laugh on the outside. That may not be an easy thing to do, but it can be done if you try hard enough. I know. Let us return to a scene in Germany, around 1950, when we were struggling to settle restitution claims quickly to raise money to meet the desperate needs of those who had barely survived the Nazi persecutions. Normally, it was not what one would consider a laughing matter.
A main reason for creation of an outside organization to handle restitution was to prevent the wrongdoing German State from benefiting from its own wrongful deeds. Millions of Jews had been dispossessed and murdered by the Nazis. All Jewish properties had been transferred to Aryan hands. Money received from sales made under duress were seized through special discriminatory taxes. Normally, unclaimed assets for which there are no known heirs revert to the local government. It was unthinkable to allow any German entity to benefit from these illegal confiscations or to retain the fruits of such crimes. The JSRO often cited the injunction: “Thou shalt not kill and be allowed to retain the possessions of your victim.”
Recovering stolen Jewish assets as prescribed by the Military Government law was a complicated legal process. Wherever possible, JSRO lawyers would seek a quick cash settlement with the possessor of property subject to restitution. But that was rarely possible. In the absence of a negotiated amicable accord, the claim would be decided by a special panel of German judges, almost all of whom had been members of the Nazi Party. Their decision could be appealed to a regular German court, then to a superior German tribunal, and from there to the final Supreme Restitution Court then composed of American judges. Those who were ordered to surrender properties they acquired from Jews during the Nazi period were lawfully entitled to get back what they had paid—but there was a problem. The original Reichsmark that had been paid were now worthless. A new currency reform law proclaimed that one new Deutsche mark would be valued as the equivalent of ten of the old Reichmark. The acquirers of Jewish property wanted to get back one Deutsche mark for every Reichmark they had paid. Who should bear the loss caused by the devaluation of the currency was a hotly debated legal and moral issue.
The “Aryanizers” of Jewish property almost invariably argued that they had paid a fair price, had paid off mortgages, had made many repairs, or were purchasers in good faith. They felt they were being unfairly hounded by this strange American-Jewish organization and its Director-General. Old anti-Semitic roots were being watered. Although we won every case in the Court of Restitution Appeals, it became clear that we needed to find a more expeditious and less contentious way to achieve our goals.
We hit upon a plan that might get us out of our difficult and time-consuming dilemma. If the German State governments could be persuaded to “buy” all of the Jewish Restitution Successor Organization claims for a fair price, there would be no unjust enrichment on their part and we would have immediate cash on hand to carry out our urgent charitable obligations. The German authorities could then take their time and make whatever concessions to their citizens that they felt were equitable. It took long negotiations to persuade state governments to accept the principle of a “global settlement.” Difficult appraisals had to be made regarding the fair value of thousands of properties before agreement could be reached. Since the plan offered benefits to all parties concerned, a deal was finally struck. It was a most novel and creative solution to a difficult political problem.
The first state government to agree to accept the arrangement for a quick cash payment was the state of Hesse. They would pay the Jewish successor organization twenty-five million marks in cash. That was a lot of money at that time. Arrangements were made to have the formal contract signing in a splendid royal house situated in the midst of a beautiful park in the state capital at Wiesbaden. This would be the first time that any post-Hitler official was to enter into a settlement of claims with an organization representing the “world Jewry” that Hitler sought to destroy. Other States were expected to follow the example. It was to be a solemn and momentous occasion, symbolic of a new relationship between Germany and the Jews.
I asked my Deputy, Dr. Ernst Katzenstein, to join me for the signing ceremonies. He had fled from Germany to England and Israel before joining the JSRO. I packed the heap of legal papers into a new attaché case I had recently bought in the U.S. Army PX. It was a neat box bound in beautiful red leather and carrying it made me feel like a British Prime Minister. Katzenstein, was so impressed with the beauty and reasonable cost of the case, that he proceeded to the PX and acquired an identical one for himself. He agreed to join me and to stay over in Wiesbaden to do some work at our regional office in the area. We would proceed together by car to the Royal Palace for the auspicious historical event.
When we arrived there, we were greeted by a welcoming party. Our driver handed me the beautiful red attaché case that he took from the trunk compartment. I brandished it conspicuously as I placed it near the center of the large round table in the pompous conference room. The Minister President made the first speech, noting the importance of the special occasion. The Finance Minister and the Justice Minister also made appropriate remarks heralding the event. Then it was my turn. I made some observations about how happy I was that we had finally reached the point of signing such a historic and important document on behalf of Nazi victims. I then reached for the contract in my beautiful red attaché case. I snapped it open with verve. Out popped Katzenstein’s pajamas!
Story 42: A Treaty to Compensate Victims
By the time the war ended in 1945, the Jews of Europe had been decimated. Roma and Sinti, whom the Germans pejoratively called “gypsies,” had all been targets of annihilation. Millions of people had been worked or starved to death because they did not share the race, religion, or ideology of their German executioners. Hitler’s proclaimed “Thousand Years Reich” had been brought to its knees in a dozen years. Defeated Deutschland was in ruins and destitute. How what method and means does one begin to heal the wounds of those who bore the brunt of the crimes perpetrated by the vicious Hitler regime?
Early in 1951, the new State of Israel called upon the four Occupying Powers to seek compensation for victims of Nazi oppression. There was no response from the Allies or the Germans. West Germany’s Chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, was eager to restore his country to the family of civilized nations. He was a devout Catholic whom the Nazis had driven out of office as the Mayor of Cologne. He had escaped further persecution with the help of a Jewish friend. Mindful of Israel’s appeal, Adenauer publicly acknowledged that unspeakable crimes had been committed in the name of the German people, and that imposed on them an obligation to make amends. The President of the World Jewish Congress, Nahum Goldmann, formerly of Berlin, responded to Adenauer’s overture by calling a conference in New York of the world’s leading Jewish organizations. I was invited to attend an “expert,” which Goldmann defined as “one who knows everything, but nothing else.”
The conference took place in a large New York hotel. Representatives of all the major national and international Jewish groups were present. What was scheduled as a meeting to discuss reconciliation soon turned into a battleground. The doors were forced open and a large group of young men, many with flowing curls under their skull caps, stormed into the room. They brandished placards and shouted at the delegates to disperse since they were disgracing Jewish honor by talking about taking blood money from murderers. I thought of the parable of Jesus chasing his money-changing brethren from the synagogue. I recall one of the delegates, a rabbi, cringing under a table. There was no need for him to fear. With the help of a few Irish cops, the intruders were firmly escorted from the room.
The very idea of sitting down with Germans to discuss money in connection with the Holocaust understandably gave rise to emotional outbursts on all sides. The Israel Parliament in Jerusalem was stoned when the subject was raised. Many Knesset members were convinced that negotiating with Germans would lead only to more betrayals. Ben Gurion, Israel’s Prime Minister, passed the hot potato to Goldmann. In the end, all agreed that it would be immoral and unwise to reject Adenauer’s overture and expression of repentance.
What emerged was a new Jewish non-profit organization, incorporated in New York under the peculiar title “The Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany (“Claims Conference.”)” There was general agreement that no agreement would be reached without the partnership of Israel, which had given refuge to so many of Hitler’s victims. A later meeting in London set the agenda for the negotiations between the new German government and representatives of the Jewish organizations. I was one of a handful of “experts” invited to join the group.
For a full week, we labored in the Grovesnor House drafting opening statements and formulating proposals. Moses Leavitt, Executive of the respected American Joint Distribution Committee played a leading role. The negotiations were very difficult and painful. Does one ask for compensation for the six million Jews murdered? How much is one human life worth? How do you measure or prove degrees of fear, or pain, or suffering? I never found such questions in my law books at Harvard. None of us was prepared to put a price tag on any human life.
We finally reached agreements on the outlines of what could be presented as valid legal claims. Incarceration in a concentration camp, for example, was illegal deprivation of liberty—its duration could be measured and verified. Physical disability caused by persecution could also be translated into measurable financial terms. Other economic losses could also be calculated. Compensation would be demanded for three distinct categories of claims: first and foremost for still-undefined personal injuries; next would be a global sum to the State of Israel to reimburse the costs of rehabilitating survivors; lastly, a sum would have to be given to the Claims Conference for ongoing relief of Nazi victims outside of Israel.
Because of antipathy among many Jews to anything German, and the tension furthered by militant Jewish groups, it was agreed that negotiations should not take place in Germany, and should be kept secret. It was “leaked” that the Claims Conference delegation would fly by special plane to a meeting in Brussels. That posed a special problem for me. Not too long before, my wife and I had bailed out of a disabled plane over the ruins of Berlin. The trauma of that parachuting incident left my wife gravely concerned every time I had to get into a plane. My colleagues were aware of the problem. Israeli Security agents responsible for our safety informed me to follow instructions that I would receive in a sealed envelope when I checked out of the London hotel. In the cab, I opened the envelope, which read: “Proceed to Hoek van Holland. You’ll be met.”
I got to the English coast as soon as I could, and took the channel ferry to “The Hook.” When I presented my passport, I was scrutinized carefully and asked to wait. Soon, a man in a dark suit appeared and asked me to step into a black Buick sedan. He whisked me off into the darkness. As dawn was breaking, I asked him who he was and where he was taking me. He replied politely that he was with the Dutch Security Police and was taking me to the meeting site. I relaxed and tried to doze until I noticed that the car had turned into some small roads and was proceeding very slowly. Half-awake, I was suddenly startled to find the car surrounded by what I thought were uniformed SS men with dogs. My memory flashed back to the concentration camps where I had last seen such guards, and my heart pounded in fear that I had fallen into an SS trap. Then I noticed, as the car pulled through the gate, that the men in black uniforms with black boots did not have the SS Death Head insignia on their collar. The Dutch Police uniforms were remarkably similar to that worn by the German SS—my fears were unjustified.
During the course of the meetings, we were being carefully guarded by the Dutch and Israeli Security Services. We were warned not to open any suspicious parcels or envelopes. A letter bomb had been sent to Professor Franz Boehm, the head of the German delegation. It had been intercepted and defused. Earlier, a bomb placed in a hollowed-out German encyclopedia addressed to Chancellor Adenauer had killed two policemen in Munich. A plane carrying two delegates from Israel exploded on landing at Frankfurt airport. We learned that a gang of Jewish “terrorists” had entered Holland with plans to kill all those who disgraced Jewish honor. Menachin Begin, who later became Prime Minister, was reportedly the leader of one of the terrorist gangs.
One day, while in the midst of negotiation, an Israeli Security agent came up behind me and whispered that I was wanted outside. I excused myself and another Security guard gingerly showed me a soiled envelope. He handed it to me gently and asked if I recognized the handwriting of the sender. I said, “of course,” as I ripped it open and the guards jumped away. It was a letter from my wife in Nuremberg. She enclosed two strips of antacid pills to help ease my tensions and it also contained two rows of film taken of our two infant children. Security had detected the powders and the strips of celluloid and concluded that it might be a letter-bomb. They soaked it in oil or did some other mysterious thing before they dared hand it to me. Instead of being blown up, we all had a needed laugh.
After about six months of difficult negotiations, a final agreement was reached. The signing ceremony was scheduled to take place in Luxembourg, where Chancellor Adenauer had scheduled other meetings. First, the accord had to be initialed by the heads of the German and Claims Conference delegations. I picked up Professor Franz Boehm, and my driver drove us from Frankfurt to The Hague where Leavitt, who was ailing, initialed for the Claims Conference. We proceeded immediately toward Luxembourg, planning to drive all night. Our route took us through Bastogne in Belgium that I had last seen during the Battle of the Bulge when the town was almost completely destroyed. I guessed we could find a cafe open. In the middle of the night we stopped at an inn for coffee. I told the Belgian owner that I had been one of the U.S. soldiers that had liberated the town from the Germans. Now we were escorting a German official trying to reach out for reconciliation with Nazi victims and Israel. The Belgian café owner absolutely refused to accept any payment for the refreshments.
The Reparations Treaty was signed in Luxembourg on the morning of September 10, 1952. Chancellor Adenauer, who was to sign first, discovered that his pen had run out of ink. A bad omen? I handed Goldmann a pen that my wife had given to me when I graduated from law school in 1943. It was an old Watermann with a lifetime guarantee. Whose life was guaranteed, it didn’t say. She gave it to me as a good luck charm with a promise that I would return with it after the war. I had carried it with me safely through every campaign. Goldmann handed it across the table to Adenauer and said he would be honored if the Chancellor signed with “his” pen. I demanded restitution from Goldmann after the meeting. That historic pen will join my archives at the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington.
While in Luxembourg, I recalled the last time I saw that lovely city. It was when the city was liberated during the war. I was billeted in a bank building where I slept on a cold stone floor. While on patrol, I met a young lady who asked me escort her home during the blackout. When she opened he door to her apartment, I was surprised to be introduced to her husband and their small baby boy. As often as I could, I would steal away from my army quarters to visit the Schneider family and bring them some much-appreciated American goodies. The friendship continued after the war as I sent welcomed “care packages” from New York.
After the Luxembourg Treaty ceremony and a few hours sleep, I thought it would be a nice surprise if I dropped in on my old friends. I found their apartment house with no trouble and I was pleased to see their name still among the bells. I wanted to surprise them so I walked up the two flights and knocked gently on the door. It flew open and a cheer went up from a flock of neighbors who crowded the apartment. The living room was filled and decorated with balloons and signs saying “Benny Welcome!” The morning papers had carried a story of the signing of the reparations treaty, and my photo was included with the article. The Schneiders had alerted all of their neighbors that the GI who slept on their carpet during the war would surely show up. I didn’t disappoint them. I was the one, however, who was the most surprised. It was a touching and memorable conclusion to a historical event.
Story 43: Seeking Fair Compensation - A Mission Impossible
The treaty that was signed on September 10, 1952 was frequently referred to as a “Reparations Agreement,” which it wasn’t. That term usually applies to nations that have been at war. It was also known as the “Hague Agreement,” though it was signed in Luxembourg. Some called it the “Luxembourg Agreement,” but Luxembourg had nothing to do with it. The Israelis referred to it as the “Shilumim Agreement,” which no one understood if they didn’t speak Hebrew. In fact, none of the signatories had any reasonable conception of the magnitude of the obligations involved in the treaty they had just solemnly signed. It was the product of political considerations cloaked in moral garb, and heralded as a solution to some profound human and legal problems that, in fact, could never be resolved.
Negotiations for compensation would not have started without prior secret assurances, given by Konrad Adenauer to Nahum Goldman, that Germany was prepared to make a significant payment. A billion was a nice round minimum figure that Goldman liked, even though it was never quite certain whether he had in mind dollars or German marks that were worth only half as much. It did not take very long for West Germany to agree to pay Israel one and a half billion dollars—but they didn’t have the money. Instead of cash, payments would be spread out over 10 to 12 years and would be in the form of German goods. That ingenious arrangement would serve to prime the German economic pump while enabling Israel to use or sell the goods. It was an ironic twist of fate that railroad trains and taxicabs, as well as many other necessities for the first Jewish State, came from the country that sought to annihilate the Jews.
The parties further agreed that another half-billion dollars in goods would be supplied to the Claims Conference to carry out its relief work for Nazi victims outside of Israel. The most important part of the deal was the cash compensation that would be made directly to those individuals who had personally endured the brunt of Nazi persecution. Since there were no provisions in the normal German law, or the law of any other country, to deal with payments for such atrocities, special legislation would be required to achieve the stated goals. What was needed was a new Federal Indemnification Law that would pass muster by both the upper and lower houses of the German Bundestag, and be supported by the German public. The responsibility for negotiating the details of this legislation with the German government was assigned to a Claims Conference Legal Committee, of which I was a part. No one present had any experience in such matters and none of us had any idea how it would turn out.
The most serious losses and injuries never came within the purview of the new law. About six million Jews had been murdered in cold blood by Hitler’s eager executioners. Gypsies suffered a similar fate, as did many other opponents of the Hitler regime, including many Germans. No one on the Jewish side ever suggested that any payment should be requested, or accepted, for this senseless genocide. When this issue was first discussed at our preparatory meetings in London, it was recognized that we should not try to place any monetary value on a human life. It was just too painful to consider whether papa was more valuable than grandma or a baby sister. Most of us had tears in our eyes when we discussed it. Nor could we measure the pain of a survivor who saw his family being murdered, or the constant fear of camp inmates who had been threatened with imminent beatings and death. Such sufferings were beyond the reach of specification, comprehension, or compensation. The Claims Conference title referred only to “material claims.” We were trying to fit into a legal frame some measure of redress based on concepts developed among civilized people accustomed to civilized behavior. The crimes of the Holocaust could not be pressed into such a mold. Blinded by outrage and the desperate needs of impoverished survivors who cried out for justice, we embarked on a mission impossible.
Story 44: Implementing Compensation Agreements
Many of the committee members, who were expected to protect overall Jewish interests, seemed to focus primarily on serving their own constituents. Those who had been employees of the pre-Hitler civil service demanded reinstatements of all their lost entitlements. Those who had resettled in Germany wanted support for the new communities. Yiddish-speaking Jews from Eastern Europe were viewed as interlopers by some of their “enlightened” German brethren. Even those who had escaped from behind the Iron Curtain showed little concern for those who had been left behind. Since I had no personal ax to grind, I was often forced into the role of mediator among our own so-called “legal experts,” in order to present to the world a picture of unity among the disunited Jewish representatives.
As to the German negotiators, many who were carryovers from the former regime did not feel any moral or legal obligation to impose onerous costs on patriotic German taxpayers who had loyally supported their government. That’s what all good citizens are expected to do in time of war, isn’t it? The conservative Finance Minister, Fritz Schaeffer, relied heavily upon the simple argument that Jewish demands exceeded Germany’s capacity to pay. Powerful holders of bonds issued by the Third Reich demanded priority payment, insisting that there could be no economic recovery without restoring Germany’s credit. Beneficiaries competed for a bigger slice of the meager pie. Vague compromises were hammered out in a hurry. The new Federal Indemnification Law—the Bundesentschedigungsgesetz (BEG), which non-Germans could neither spell nor pronounce—was enacted in October, 1953. It stipulated that the program for compensating Nazi victims would be completed within ten years. (Fifty years later, after $50 billion dollars had been paid out to more than 500,000 survivors, a reunited Germany was planning a new foundation to wrap up their indemnification responsibilities.)
As soon as the West German government enacted the new indemnification law, all victims of Nazi persecution became entitled to claim compensation for a large variety of injuries and losses. It was clear to me that claimants would need legal assistance to submit and prove the validity of their claims. The Jewish Restitution Successor Organization dealt only with the recovery of heirless properties. The Claims Conference was responsible for negotiating the details of new German compensation laws. But who would help the victims file and prove the validity of their unprecedented claims? Jewish claimant could not be expected to turn to a former Nazi lawyer for help or be able to pay for legal assistance.
Moses Leavitt, executive head of “The Joint,” recognized that a new organization was needed to help the claimants. After all, if camp survivors received compensation, their need for charitable help would be diminished. “Moe” Leavitt was better known as “No Leavitt” because of his tight-fisted monetary controls. Since I was already head of the JRSO and Claims Conference offices in Germany, he concluded that I was just the right man to organize and direct a United Restitution Organization (URO) to provide legal aid to needy claimants. All the reins would then be in one hand and that would ensure uniformity of policies. No increase in my meager salary was considered necessary.
To provide legal assistance to claimants for a modest contingent fee, URO offices were opened wherever there were large numbers of former Nazi victims who might need help in submitting claims. Eventually, there were URO branches in 19 countries, and offices in the major cities of Germany where special Finance Ministry agencies dealt with the indemnification claims. Hundreds of thousands of claims poured in. Each one had to be accompanied by persuasive evidence. Medical examinations had to be translated and verified. The German agencies were swamped with literally millions of claims from Jews as well as non-Jews. German nationals and non-Jews were also among Hitler’s victims and they all benefited from the legislation pushed by the Claims Conference.
In many cases, it was almost impossible to prove the direct causal connection between the alleged injury and the persecution. Despite the best efforts of a URO staff of over 1,000 persons, including 250 carefully screened German lawyers, practically all of the claimants had one thing in common: they all felt that whatever they got was too little and too late. With angry complaints, they blamed the URO. A common complaint was that everybody else had already been paid, or had received more for the same injuries. What claimants did not realize was that a reasonably competent and underpaid staff was working very hard to get as much as possible for them. Some German agencies were sympathetic, but many were antagonistic. They were required by law to be meticulous and there was no way to deal with so many complicated claims in a short period of time. Protracted litigation was often unavoidable.
I recall the head of the URO office in Stockholm phoning me in a panic about the clients rioting in the office. I told him to convene a meeting of all the complainers in the main synagogue and I would be there on the next plane. I took off my jacket when I addressed the unruly crowd. I took their complaints in English, German, French, Hungarian, and Yiddish. Then I invited anyone who felt he could get better service elsewhere to please come to the office in the morning and we would be happy to give him or her back their file with our best wishes. Of course, not a single complainer showed up.
One of the loudest complaints by the Displaced Persons (DP’s) who remained in Germany was that the directors of the Jewish restitution organizations traveled in American sedans. “Look at them riding around in big cars with “unser gelt”—“our money!” What the disgruntled complainers did not know was that originally I obtained cars, and maintenance, without charge from the U.S. military. When that dried up, I purchased cars from soldiers who were being transferred back to the U.S.A. The vehicles would later be sold, and usually at a profit. Transportation by car was the most efficient and cheapest way to get around to the scattered restitution offices. Rather than being a spendthrift at the expense of the survivors, the Director-General often found himself in the role of a used car salesman.
Many DP’s fleeing anti-semitism in Poland and other Eastern countries fled to Germany where they took up residence. They argued that the former Jewish communal property like synagogues, schools, or old-age homes, now belonged to them. The issue of ownership of the communal properties, and properties of organizations that had been dissolved by Nazi decree, finally came before the U.S. Court of Restitution Appeals. The legal arguments took place in the courthouse at Nuremberg where the war crimes trials had been held. I told the American judges sadly that I had stood on the same spot when I prosecuted Nazi murderers of the Jews, and I never thought that I would stand there again to argue against a Jewish congregation. My legal responsibilities under the restitution law were not merely to aid those now in Germany, but also the majority who had been forced to flee. The judges agreed. The landmark decision did not make me very popular with the new Jewish Communities, even though the JSRO had given the local Jewish communities everything reasonably needed for their survival and growth.
One flamboyant German official, Philip Auerbach, in charge of compensation claims in Bavaria, was quite a bizarre figure. It was rumored that he had been interned by the Nazis because he was tainted by Jewish blood. It was known that he paid little attention to formalities. I always considered him neurotic. On several occasions he sought me out for a donation from the JRSO for some strange scheme he concocted. I always refused. I recall a detailed plan he had for shipping Hitler’s stolen art works to the United States for exhibitions in museums that would pay well for the privilege. The money would then go back to the compensation fund. He had the name of the ship, the museums, and the amounts payable. I was not really surprised when, after I checked it out, I learned that it was all a figment of his imagination. When he and the head of a local Jewish community announced that they were establishing a Jewish Restitution Bank to receive deposits from concentration camp victims, I immediately cabled Jewish organizations throughout the world to beware. Exactly one year later, the police closed down the so-called bank; the finances of the Auerbach office were under investigation, and he committed suicide. It was a crazy time with crazy people doing crazy things.
Story 45: Some Unanticipated Consequences
The variety and unpredictability of the work in which we were engaged was unimaginable. All religious congregations in Germany are treated as official government entities. They are supported by income taxes levied on those who declare their religious affiliations. Nazi laws decreed that all Jewish organizations be dissolved, and their assets forfeited to the Reich. Rabbis, teachers, social workers, and even those responsible for circumcisions, had to flee for their lives. During the course of the negotiations in The Hague, the question arose about who was to pay for the lost pensions of those Jewish officials. The German negotiators balked, saying they had no way to confirm which officials would have been entitled to what pension. Wearing my Claims Conference hat, I proposed that we cap the obligation at 30 million marks. They still refused. We countered with a proposal to set up a committee to certify each claim and if the Social Ministry did not agree, no payment need be made. That was so reasonable that they dropped their objections. Then the fun began.
We set up a Pensions Advisory Board in a small office in Bonn in a rickety old building that was inexpensive because the landlord rented rooms by the hour. Our sole staff member, a very meticulous German Jew, E. G. Lowenthal, received the applications from former Jewish officials and, based on his own extensive knowledge and investigations, prepared the initial recommendations. The other Advisory Board members consisted of knowledgeable persons drawn from the JRSO, URO, and Claims Conference. I was Chairman, and my knowledge of the subject was practically nonexistent. Fortunately, the files were clear and comprehensive and many claims could be rejected or approved with little discussion. In case there was a tie vote, I would always give the benefit of the doubt to the claimant. My ignorance was no excuse for rejecting an application.
Sometimes it was a very close judgment. I recall a case where it appeared that a particular rabbi was on the verge of being fired for cause—such as his occasional failure to appear at funerals because he may have been busy privately consoling the widow. Instead of a pension, his congregants were getting ready to give the rabbinical Romeo the boot. There were several cases where the negative decision of the Advisory Board was overruled by the Social Ministry that insisted on paying the claimant. In such cases, I felt that our Board had been too strict and I felt better about approving the request of the loving rabbi whose congregation may not have been so forgiving. My greatest satisfaction came when it became apparent that the pensions program cost the German government at least ten times more than the 30 million marks I had offered to settle all pension claims. The only thing dumber than my proposal was Germany’s rejection of it.
I should also mention the unsuccessful struggle to obtain compensation for Nazi victims from the communist government of the German Democratic Republic (GDR). For about 10 years, starting around 1974, as attorney for the Claims Conference, I conducted secret negotiations with representatives of the GDR in East Berlin. The U.S. State Department was fully informed, and even offered to intervene if my efforts failed. I would pass through the border controls at Checkpoint Charley and proceed on foot to the U.S. Embassy in East Berlin. Then I would meet the Antifascist Resistance Fighters, a front for the communist government. To be safe, I never took the taxi that was usually parked at the East German side of the divide. I always walked in the center of the street, facing the traffic, and avoided coming close to any doorways where someone might be lurking. I remembered by friend Charley Jordan of The Joint who was on a charitable mission in communist Prague and was later found floating in the river. His murderers were never apprehended.
On one of my semiannual visits, I planned to go swimming in the nearby West German Olympic swimming pool. I carried only my swimming trunks and, because it looked like it might rain, I took along a pair of rubber overshoes. When I tried to leave East Germany, the female uniformed GDR border guard asked me, in German, what I had in the briefcase under my arm. I opened it wide so she could look inside. “What is that?” she asked, pointing to the plastic bag that held my swimsuit. I took it out slowly and held it up without saying a word. She looked very puzzled. “And what is that?” she said, pointing to the other plastic bag. Again, I opened the bag and this time took out my rubber overshoes. That’s all I had with me. (I never took any papers with me when I entered East Germany.) I could see her consternation as she began to try to divine what this strange little American was up to. Was he planning to escape by swimming across the river, as some had done? “These are overshoes,” I said, “as protection against the rain.” She looked up at the sky—the sun was shining. I could contain myself no longer—I burst into loud laughter as I explained that I was planning to go swimming and I thought it might rain later. She hastily passed me through and was glad to be rid of me. I wonder how she explained that to her husband when she got home that night.
Some events were less hilarious. Negotiations with the communist GDR were usually polite, but tense. My East German counterpart was a communist who had been interned in the Nazi concentration camp at Mauthausen. I had been with the American army when the camp was liberated. I told him that we were both acting as representatives of others, but since I had risked my life to save his, I hoped we could at least be honest with each other. He agreed.
The leaders of the GDR, having themselves been persecuted, felt no legal or moral obligation to compensate any other victim. After many sharp and often unpleasant meetings, I detected that the GDR was planning to do something. They requested the bank account number of the Claims Conference. I stalled and reported back to base. Goldmann sent word to call him in Paris if anything developed. The next day, as I entered the negotiation room in November 1976, there were liquor bottles and glasses on the table, and cameramen in the room. The GDR representative read a statement in the name of their “Head of State,” the gist of which was that the GDR was making a donation of one million dollars to the Claims Conference to benefit the needy Jews in the United States. They offered a toast. I replied that I would relay the message. I walked the half-mile back to the U.S. Embassy, and from there, phoned Goldmann in Paris. I suggested that we thank them for this first installment, and continue the talks. Goldmann replied that it was like “throwing the dog a bone.” He called a press conference and blasted the GDR. I got out of East Berlin as quickly as I could. It was rather a unique historic occasion when, about a week later, the Claims Conference sent a million dollar check back to the GDR.
No one anticipated that the initial indemnification law that was called for by the Reparations Agreement of September 1952, which led to the Indemnification Law of October 1953, would have to be expanded repeatedly over time. Additional special agreements were later reached with West Germany to close some of the undeniable holes in the compensation net. No one expected that communist East Germany would collapse as the cold war ended, and that there would be a unified Germany with complete independence from the former occupiers. By that time, my interest had moved away from seeking compensation for the Holocaust to trying to prevent another Holocaust. But that’s another story.