Implementing Compensation Agreements

Benjamin B. Ferencz

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.