Some Unanticipated Consequences

Benjamin B. Ferencz

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.