A Treaty to Compensate Victims

Benjamin B. Ferencz

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.