Restitution to Nazi Victims: A Milestone in International Morality

Many of the great movements of history are guided by the inspiration and determination of a few devoted men. The scope and complexity of contemporary life, however, compel a concert of action in which the role of the individual tends to be obscured. It is not the purpose here to place a laurel crown on the brow of any one individual. The work itself must serve to reflect his achievement. The singular endeavor of seeking restitution for wrongs committed against Jews has already carved its place in Jewish history. This program stands as a tribute to the handful of resolute Jewish leaders whose faith and determination made it possible. When World War II had ended and the fear and anguish had somewhat abated, men could set their hearts and minds to healing some of the profound wounds which remained. During the dozen-year reign of the “Thousand-Year Reich,” European Jewry had been decimated. The intellectuals, the artists, and the communal leaders had been destroyed. Not even the innocent youth, the stalk of Jewish life, had been spared. Of those who could not flee, only a tattered remnant survived the fanatic Nazi scourge.

With diabolical precision, under the cloak of law, or through mere seizure, duress, or terror, Jews had been systematically divested of their possessions. Those who had escaped with their lives were now scattered throughout the world, often living in adversity and need. It was evident that some means would have to be found to restore to the former owners, of their heirs, the property of which they had been so cruelly dispossessed. Nor could the possessions of those who, together with their heirs, had lost their lives in the Nazi infernos, be allowed to remain in the hands of their wrongful possessors. The leading Jewish organization in the United States, remembering the biblical question “Hast thou killed and also taken possession?”, insisted that these heirless assets would have to be retrieved in order to help reconstruct the shattered lives of those who had survived. This great humanitarian principle was embodied in the first restitution law passed by the United States Military Government authorities in Germany.

On March 31, 1946, under the provisions of this law, the Jewish restitution Successor organization, referred to below as JRSO, was designated as successor to heirless and unclaimed property. In the same year, the Organization was incorporated under the New York State membership corporation law. The incorporators were: The American Jewish Committee; the American Jewish Conference; the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee; the Broad of Deputies of British Jews; the Commission on European Jewish Cultural Reconstruction; Council for the Protection of the Rights and Interests of Jews from Germany; the Jewish Agency for Palestine; and the World Jewish Congress.

Later the following organizations were co-opted: Agudas Israel World Organization; the Anglo-Jewish Association; the Central British Fund; the Conseil Representative Israelite of France; and the Arbeitsgemeinschaft Sueddeutscher Landes-verbaende Juedischer Gemeinden.

In accordance with an agreement reached at the time of the incorporation of the JSRO, the presidency and the chairmanship of the executive committee alternate annually between a representative of the Joint Distribution Committee and a representative of the Jewish Agency for Palestine, in recognition of the special role of these bodies as the operating agents of the JSRO. Since October 1949, Monroe Goldwater of the Joint Distribution Committee and Dr. Israel Goldstein of the Jewish Agency for Palestine have occupied the offices.

Toward the end of 1948, headquarters of the JSO were established in the Bavarian city of Nuremberg which, ironically, had given its name to the racial laws which divested the Jews of their rights in Germany, and to the post-war trials Nazi war criminals. Jewish lawyers, who had been forced to flee from Germany, were recruited from all parts of the world to help search the records for evidence required to retrieve what had been illegally seized. On the basis of such evidence, each of the many thousands of claims had to be pa9instakingly negotiated with the current German possessor, or adjudicated by German administrative agencies and courts under the watchful eye of an American Appellate Tribunal. These proceedings, touching the private pocket-nerve of persons long in possession, encountered bitter opposition and hostility. The JSRO was forced to turn the bulk settlements with the State governments as the only feasible means of expediting the recoveries. Upon payment of an agreed sum by the German state governments, which had been precluded from obtaining the claims by escheat, obtained them by assignment from the JSRO, and the state assumed responsibility for settling with the current German holder.

These were the years of crucial decision for the JSRO. As the war-time alliance between East and West crumbled, United States policy toward Germany underwent drastic revision. Those who were formerly regarded as enemies were now eagerly sought as allies. This reversal brought with it a tendency to forget or minimize the past. German pressure groups demanded the relinquishment of American controls and the abandonment of the restitution policy. Constant vigilance became t5he Jewish watchword as the attempted assaults were successfully repelled.

In the United States Zone alone, property worth close to $250,000,000 was restored to former owners, now living in sixty different countries throughout the world. In addition, heirless assets worth over $25,000,000 were recovered. These proceeds were used to provide shelter for refugees crowding tent camps in Israel, to aid needy Jews still living in Germany, hard-core medical cases, the aged, the blind and the destitute. In addition to the rescue of material treasures, the rescue of cultural treasures proved one of the most gratifying aspects of JSRO work. The Nazis had destroyed the synagogues, libraries and museums of Europe, after looting them, but much of the loot had been transported to Germany. At war’s end, the United States army collected these treasures for return to the rightful owners. Acting in collaboration with the Jewish Cultural Reconstruction, an organization of scholars, the JSRO received over a quarter million Jewish books which were distributed to yeshivot and other centers of Jewish learning throughout the world. Almost a thousand Torah scrolls, and more than 10,000 ritual objects, including Hanukah lamps, wine goblets, pointers and amulets, were salvaged. A total of 700 works of Jewish art, which had been seized by the Gestapo, were sent to enrich the new museums of Israel. The temples had been destroyed, but these symbols of a great tradition would be seeds of the regeneration of Jewish life.

Besides achieving these satisfying results, the influence of the JSRO overflowed, as it were, into the British and French Zones of Germany. The JSRO served as the pioneer. In the words of Judge Fred J. Cohen, the Chief Justice of the Court of Restitution Appeals, it was “the mainspring of restitution.” It was the model for the creation of similar, and related, Jewish Successor organizations in the British and French zones, where the pattern was duplicated. In Berlin, the JSRO served as agent for all successor organizations, and everywhere, except in Soviet-dominated areas, Jewish property was returned. In retrospect, it may fairly be said that, of all the declared post-war objectives, restitution was least tarnished with time, and the return of identifiable property as well as heirless assets was successfully completed.

As JSRO’s program was developing, however, it became apparent that the return of identifiable property still provided no compensation to the vast majority of Nazi victims. It was natural that the sharp contrast between Germany’s striking economic recovery, and the wretched plight of the thousands of impoverished Jewish refugees, who crowded the barren new settlements of Israel, should arouse a bitter sense of injustice. Those property-less masses who, for years, had suffered the torments of the Nazi concentration camps, the widows and orphans who had lost their providers, those who had been cast out of their professions or businesses, and those who had been permanently disabled remained without redress. A few German Laender (Provinces) in the American zone had enacted indemnification laws providing small payments to select categories of claimants for a number of personal losses, but these decrees were too narrow in scope, too limited in application and too arbitrary in their restrictions to be of help to more than a very small percentage of the victims. There was need for a general law offering personal indemnity to all individuals entitled to redress. Israel appealed to the occupying Powers; the plea was ignored by the Soviets and, though sympathetically received by the West, Israel was reminded that Germany was about to become again a sovereign state.

Before this happened, however, there were indications that the restored State would act favorably on a similar plea. On the eve of the Jewish New Year in 1951, the German Chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, in a solemn statement before the German parliament, publicly acknowledged that “unspeakable crimes were perpetrated in the name of the German people which impose upon them the obligation to make moral sand material amends.” He announced that “the Federal Republic is prepared, jointly with representatives of the Jewry and the State of Israel, which has admitted so many homeless Jewish refugees, to bring about a solution of the material reparations problem in order to facilitate the way to a spiritual purging of unheard-of suffering.” For the first time in history, the Jewish people were to see their representatives sitting at a conference table with the representatives of the successor to a government which had systematically sought to exterminate the Jews.

In order to promote the implementation of Adenauer’s suggestion, twenty-three leading Jewish organizations established the historic “Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany,” on October 25, 1951, in New York City. (This organization will hereafter be referred to as the “Conference.”) The chairman was Dr. Nahum Goldmann, head of the Jewish Agency for Palestine, who became the architect of the reparations movement. Jewish public opinion was sharply divided: many, their hearts filled with pain, and distrust of Germany seared into their memory, felt that meeting with the German government could bring only dishonor and disillusion; others, whose sense of pride was not stronger than their sense of justice, were persuaded that the needs and rights of the victims were decisive and that there was morality in refusing to seek compensation in accordance with normal standards of law. The final decision, reached not without apprehension, was in favor of cautious negotiation. A presidium of five persons, who had face and who were determined not to reject Germany’s offer without trial, was elected to pilot the endeavors. The leaders selected were: Jacob Blaustein, president of the American Jewish Committee; Frank Goldman, president of B’nai B’rith; Israel Goldstein, chairman of the Western Hemisphere Executive of the World Jewish Congress; and Adolph Held, chairman of the Jewish Labor Committee.

On the first day of spring in 1952, in the ancient town of Wassenaar, a suburb of The Hague, the Conference delegation, headed by Moses A. Leavitt, executive vice-chairman of the American Joint Distribution Committee, presented its claims against Germany. It stood side by side with the State of Israel which made independent demands on behalf of its citizens and itself. Jewish extremists threatened and attempted to bomb the meetings which were shrouded in secrecy, and under heavy guard. The negotiations, which were marked by cold dignity, were difficult and protracted. Disputes arouse about the magnitude of the losses, the degree and methods of compensation, as well as Germany’s willingness and capacity to pay. Although the presidium remained aloof from the daily sessions, it was in constant contact with all developments and gave directions to the deliberations.

After half a year of difficult negotiations, those who had believed were vindicated, as the final agreements were signed in Luxembourg on September 10, 1952. Israel was to receive close to seven hundred and fifteen million dollars worth of goods within the next ten to twelve years, as collective reimbursement for the funds it had expended in receiving and resettling Nazi victims. Protocol No. 1, concluded with the Claims Conference, contained the outline of new laws to be enacted by Germany, giving individual victims and their heirs the indemnification to which they were entitled for their personal sufferings and losses. Protocol No. 2 provided over one hundred and seven million dollars, to be used by the Conference primarily for the relief and rehabilitation of the most needy victims living outside of Israel.

A uniform Federal indemnification law, providing compensation to large numbers of Nazi victims, was enacted in the fall of 1953. Well over a million claims, about half of them from Jews, were filed under Germany’s new law, the administration of which soon bogged down in a maze of bureaucratic red tape and legalistic formalities. Despite the noble sentiments expressed by the German Chancellor and leading parliamentarians, many of the petty officials who administered the law evidenced no enthusiasm for a generous application of its terms. The need for revision, in line with the spirit of The Hague agreements, was apparent to all. The Claims Conference served as spokesman for the Jewish victims of persecution in pressing for improvements. In July 1956, the Federal republic enacted a revised law designed to accelerate and increase the payments to the claimants.

It has been estimated that the indemnification laws will cost the Federal republic between hundreds of thousands of the Jewish survivors of persecution. Of over 400,000 claims disposed of, only half have already been paid. On the rolls of beneficiaries of social service agencies throughout the world and in the homes of many thousands of victims, the results of The Hague agreements and Germany’s new policy of compensation are beginning to be felt.

Jewish losses were so enormous and the destruction of life so great, that the enactment of complex legislation and the adjudication of countless claims on the merits of provable facts provided only a, limited remedy. The funds received by the Claims Conference were designed to help bridge the gap. By the end of 1955, the Conference had received about twenty million dollars as a consequence of The Hague agreements. Needless to say, the demands for these funds far exceeded the amount available.

Established Jewish social service and welfare agencies in all countries, where Nazi victims had taken refuge, became the instrumentalities for the distribution of Conference funds. Current needs were met by grants for cash relief; essential medical aid; care for the aged, the orphaned children, the youth; loan funds, resettlement aid, vocational training and communal rehabilitation. Special funds were provided for rabbis and former community leaders, whose readjustment in new communities was particularly difficult. Close to 50,000 Nazi victims with claims against Germany received legal aid through the United Restitution organization, which was subsidized by the conference to help claima9ints who could not afford private counsel.

On if the most difficult problems confronting the Conference was how to use these funds so that the effect on Jewish life would be of enduring value. The wise counsel of Israel Goldstein, a vice-president of the Claims conference since its formation, led to the adoption, by the Conference, of the policy that it look beyond the needs of the moment and plan fort the distant future. The reconstruction of Jewish life could not begin and end with the dole. A foundation would have to be laid upon which future generations could build. In line with this policy, the cultural and educational programs of the Conference looked beyond the horizon. Jewish schools were enlarged, teachers and itinerant rabbis were employed, books were publi8shed, and yeshivot were subsidized in widespread areas where the existing communal facilities could not cope with the demands created by refugee families. Efforts were made to restore the corps of Jewish teachers and intellectuals by providing grants, scholarships and fellowships to students engaged in independent and creative Jewish work, in seminaries, colleges, and universities. In an attempt to keep alive the wellsprings of Jewish cultural inspiration, research and publications in fields of basic Jewish interest were sponsored. The Conference gave its encouragement and support also to plans for creating a permanent historical record of the Jewish tragedy and for commemorating victims. The hope was cherished that by striking these sparks the Conference would kindle new flames of Jewish genius which would illuminate the dark shadows which had given them birth.

The Conference had been in existence for only a few years, yet there is hardly a Jewish organization anywhere in the world which has not heard its name or felt its influence. Just as no one can tell where ends the ripple caused by a pebble dropped in a pool, so it is impossible to estimate the limits of the effects of the work of the Conference. It would be premature to venture any judgment now, but indications are that, through Germany’s restitution program, a new stimulus has been given to Jewish life.

In contrast with the relatively rapid progress of the negotiations of the Conference with the German authorities, was the slow progress of similar negotiations with the government of Austria. Gay pre-war Vienna had a Jewish population of over 150,000, constituting one of the most flourishing Jewish communities in Europe. When, in 1938, the brown-shirted troops of Nazi Germany invaded Austria, the “Anschluss” was welcomed by jubilant masses of the local population. No time was lost in subjecting the Jews to Nazi brutalities, plunder and murder. The Jews of Austria suffered the fate of their German brethren —mass flight or mass extermination. At the war’s end, less than 5,000 remained in Austria. The rest were dead or scattered over the face of the earth.

During The Hague negotiations, the Federal Republic of Germany declined to accept responsibility for the plunder of Jewish property in Austria. It was the Austrians who had reaped the benefit, they argued, and it was up to Austria to restore the ill-gotten gains. The Jewish organizations, paralleling the Claims Conference, formed the “Committee for Jewish Claims on Austria.” A meeting was arranged between representatives of this committee and the heads of the Austrian state. The historic conference took place on June 17, 1953 in Vienna. The Austrian Government was represented by Drs. Julius Raab, Chancellor; Adolf Schaerf, Vice-Chancellor; Reinhold Kamitz, Finance Minister; Karl Gruber, Foreign Minister. The joint executive board for Jewish Claims on Austria was represented by Dr. Nahum Goldmann, chairman of the joint executive board, Dr. Israel Goldstein, president of the American Jewish Congress; Jacob Blaustein, president of the American Jewish Committee; Barnett Janner, vice president f the Board of Deputies of British Jews; Eugene Weill, secretary general of the Alliance Israelite Universelle and Moses W. Beckelman, director general of the American Joint Distribution Committee, who headed up the negotiating team, along with Dr. Nehemiah Robinson, the World Jewish Congress’ outstanding expert on restitution problems, who was not able to attend this conference.

The Committee for Jewish Claims on Austria sought legislation to remove existing discrimination against Nazi victims who no longer resided in Austria; measures to benefit the existing Jewish Community by restoring housing, synagogues and cemeteries; and the establishment of a special relief fund to compensate for the heirless property which had been confiscated and was then still in Austrian hands.

The attitude of the Austrian government was most discouraging. It was obvious that Austrian politicians were more interested in providing benefits to former Nazis who could vote, than to Nazi victims who could not. The negotiations were protracted, wearisome and vexatious, but the Committee remained adamant. When agreement was finally reached, late in 1955, it was a far cry from the original expectations and from the concessions obtained from Germany.

Austria agreed to make limited amounts of heirless Jewish assets available to the small local Jewish community, and to establish a fund of about twenty million dollars to aid needy Austrian Jews living abroad. By June 1956, applications to the fund were being received, but no payments had yet been made. Despite this limited success, it is anticipated that substantial numbers of aged and needy Nazi victims from Austria will benefit from the concessions wrung with great travail from the Austrian government.

The history of the Jews is not infrequently a history of persecution. The fearful pattern repeats itself, varying in location, intensity and time. The reaping of the whirlwind has brought in its wake vengeance, hatred and, at time, tribute. The restitution programs here outlined have, however, signalized new directions in man’s eternal quest for civilized human conduct. Never before has there been so comprehensive an endeavor to provide individual compensation, varying with the specific circumstances of each particular case, for wrongs such as those heaped upon the Jews of Germany and Austria. The deterrent effort of such a program cannot now be estimated. The ideal of restoring to each, that of which he ad been unjustly deprived, has by no means been achieved. Despite shortcomings, however, much has already been gained. There is moreover, a certain movement which is meaningful beyond the compensation paid, and the resuscitation of Jewish life. Long after the restitution funds have all been disbursed and their use has been all but forgotten, the president set will still remain. A rule of law has been introduced in an area where, in the past, the tenets of fundamental justice were conspicuously absent. In the words of Israel Goldstein: “It brought into being a new moral standard in international affairs affecting the Jewish people – namely, that no nation can despoil its Jewish population without being held accountable before the bar of justice. The crimes committed by the Nazis, however, were dealt with differently. The Jewish people, united in the face of supreme need and acting in cooperation with Israel, had the dignity to demand restitution and reparation. The amounts total only a meager fraction of the values which had been despoiled. Moreover, there could be no material compensation for the lives which have been destroyed. What has been accomplished marks an historic milestone in international morality.”