Holocaust Survivors Are Still Waiting For Justice

Victims of the Nazis and their heirs who seek return of their property or compensation are fobbed off by obstructive courts and corporations

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Dina Gold, with her grandmother: Their family’s quest for compensation required luck as well as determination (photo ©Dina Gold)

If monuments, special museums, educational schemes and annual ceremonies were sufficient to ensure adequate memorialisation of the Holocaust, understanding of its history and a measure of justice for the victims, there would be grounds for solid satisfaction. The existence of several high-profile commemorative initiatives in Britain owes much to Professor David Cesarani. He also played a leading international role as a public intellectual in efforts to promote Holocaust education. He rightly attracted much appreciative comment after his premature death last October.

Unfortunately, the situation is less than satisfactory in at least two ways. Here too Cesarani’s role needs to be noted. First, Holocaust survivors have tended to be marginalised and disrespected — useful as speakers to school groups or as potential financial contributors but for little else. With exceptions such as Sir Martin Gilbert, career historians have often belittled and even resented eye-witnesses to the Jewish tragedy. Some of the most contemptuous have been Jewish historians, Cesarani among them.

Obviously, personal memories are not always reliable. But neither are documents, especially if many have been lost so that it is not always possible to assess the meaning and relevance of the ones which remain. Professional historians must be prepared to use a whole variety of sources. Their frequent reluctance to engage in detail with survivors has reflected a guild mentality. I remember all too vividly the authoritarian manner in which a number of well-known Jewish historians, including Cesarani, put down Hungarian survivors when they challenged the speculative, arguably biased interpretation given by a prominent Israeli historian of Rudolf Kastner’s controversial deal in 1944 with Adolf Eichmann. It happened at a meeting organised by Cesarani, then the young director of the Wiener Library in London, to mark the 50th anniversary of the Hungarian deportations. The failure of many historians to engage in sufficient depth with survivors has meant the loss of potentially invaluable sources of information and understanding.

Second, a prevailing academic interpretation of the causes of the Holocaust has come to pay excessive attention to convenient theses by such German scholars such as Hans Mommsen, who promoted the view of the Holocaust as (in Cesarani’s words) “cock-up” and without significant historical roots.

In Final Solution: The Fate of the Jews 1933-49 (Macmillan, £30), Cesarani’s posthumously published 1,056-page book, he provides a digest and interpretation of recent research into the Holocaust. It will be widely welcomed as a work that demonstrates the author’s detailed knowledge of the recent output of academic colleagues and, as he acknowledges, the resources of three major Holocaust libraries: the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, and the Wiener Library. Whether it will be seen as a masterly synthesis or as a work of lesser significance remains to be seen. In the immediate aftermath of his early death, it is hard to make a dispassionate judgment.

What I found most striking about Cesarani’s book was the extent to which he remained attached to the view of events propounded between 1939 and 1948 by the Jewish community in Palestine (the Yishuv). In 1939, the British government, which held the League of Nations mandate to govern Palestine, introduced a strict limit on Jewish immigration into Palestine. The policy lasted until the creation of the State of Israel in 1948. The temptation, therefore, was to blame British rather than German policy for the murder of six million European Jews. For many years, this remained a theme of Israeli Holocaust historians such as Yehuda Bauer.

In Cesarani’s case, a side effect has been excessive sympathy for German interpretations of the “unintended” Holocaust (the so-called “functionalist” thesis of the Mommsen school). History is rarely neat; events are complex; in a world war, there are inevitable variations between what happened in different localities. But this does not mean that the Holocaust was, in Cesarani’s term, “haphazard”. This view all too easily trivialises the Holocaust and lets many of the perpetrators off the hook of responsibility. It also risks being bad history.

A book which does take Holocaust responsibility seriously has been written by the British investigative journalist Dina Gold. It is riveting, humane and politically important, though I must admit that I had to overcome an initial reluctance — as it turns out unjustified — to approach the work in the first place.

Stolen Legacy (Ankerwycke, £17.99) is a highly readable account of the author’s arduous quest to document the story of her grandmother, a refugee from the Nazis. The family had  been forced to abandon a building in Berlin owned by their firm of furriers. After the war, the property became part of Communist East Germany. Only following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, by which time her grandmother had died, were Dina and her mother able to pursue the story and to embark on an epic, ultimately successful claim for compensation.

The author describes with admirable clarity the multiple legal steps this required, the internal family difficulties and the resistance of German bureaucrats and business representatives. At one point, she needed the guile acquired as a reporter for the BBC consumer watchdog programme Checkpoint even to be permitted to enter the building. Later, the fact that she stimulated two documentaries, in the UK and Germany, about her campaign must have given it a decisive push. Nevertheless, the book shows the exceptional determination, skill and luck needed by Jewish heirs in search of belated justice.

So, why had I reacted with reserve when I learned that she  and I were both to speak at a meeting last summer at a conference at the Brooklyn Law School? In the 1990s, Jewish Holocaust survivors in London, former slave labourers in Auschwitz, asked me to assist them in their campaign for compensation. They were not seeking the return of property but the simple acknowledgement that their slave labour had been illegal and merited at least as much financial reward as that granted after the war to most former members of the SS who had been their slave drivers. I was to be their “honorary academic adviser”.

It soon became apparent that almost everyone was ignoring their just claims. Especially disturbing was the contemptuous way elderly victims of the Nazis were being treated by some of the main Jewish organisations, whose leaders were supposed to be representing their interests, by certain of their lawyers, by greedy historians, and by organs of the State of Israel itself.

There were a few unexpected heroes. I was greatly enriched by the chance to work with the lawyer Anthony Julius, who worked pro bono; the then Times journalists Michael Gove and Daniel Johnson; the legal counsellor at the German Embassy in London, Herr Dobbelstein; Stephan Kramer, a gentile official of the Jewish Claims Conference in Germany who later converted to Judaism; Nina Staehle, a Seventh Day Adventist doctoral student at Oxford; the US archivist Miriam Kleiman and, above all, several wonderful courageous survivors. They were able to withstand obstruction and occasional insults from the German authorities but found it far harder to accept frequent rejection from Jewish authorities.

In the end, the German side offered a token £5,000 compensation to eligible survivors for their slave labour in Auschwitz or in other camps, often covering a period of years. Before they were entitled to receive even this, they were required to sign away their legal rights and to accept that the sum was a goodwill offering rather than an admission of responsibility.

Against this background, why should it matter that Dina Gold was able to secure some £2.7 million for her mother from the German government as her share of the value of their beautiful commercial property in central Berlin expropriated during Hitler’s rule? Why should her family receive several hundred times the amount awarded to a Jewish slave labourer for work and suffering in Auschwitz? Why, for that matter, should we marvel at the success of Los Angeles lawyer Randol Schoenberg (grandson of the composer) in securing the return of Gustav Klimt’s portrait of the Jewish woman Adele Bloch-Bauer (the “Woman in Gold”) to her niece and rightful owner? By the time it was returned by the Austrian authorities in 2006, it was worth $135 million. Is it the reality that the heirs of millionaire Jewish families should be able to secure compensation by employing lawyers willing to work for potentially handsome contingency fees, whereas ordinary Holocaust survivors are left in the cold?

These were unnecessary reservations. What shines through the book is an unusually honest account of a determined quest to vindicate a much-loved grandmother and mother. In the process, Gold does more than many general histories to illustrate the way in which Nazism affected the everyday lives of Jewish families and, in particular, their women. What makes her account real is that she does not avoid showing how persecution brought out the worst as well as the best in its Jewish victims. Sexual infidelity, financial folly, snobbery and even deceit between relatives are part of what actually happened. Such a human toll is too rarely recounted in the stock videoed testimonies of Holocaust survivors which have been collected in recent years. The book is valuable too in illustrating examples of “everyday denial” of their Nazi past and obstruction by some German corporations in their responses to Gold’s inquiries.

In broader policy terms, the determination of relatively well-placed heirs such as Gold to pursue their personal property claims appears to be helping rather than hindering elderly survivors of the concentration and death camps and their families. Following the betrayal of the former slave labourers by Jewish organisations in the negotiations with the German authorities in the 1990s, Germany and countries in Eastern Europe have not achieved the “legal peace” they desired.

Poland is rightly under pressure to compensate Jewish heirs for properties lost under the Nazis. The Polish legislature has been reluctant to accommodate the property claims of Jewish families whose members no longer live in Poland regardless of the reality that, in most cases where Jews were not murdered, they were expelled. A recent case before the US courts has opened the way for similar property claims in Hungary.

Moreover, Gold’s campaign has been making waves at the University of Mannheim. She discovered that the Victoria Insurance Company, which benefited from the foreclosure on her family property in 1936, had funded a foundation there in the name of its then chairman. Her appeal to the university to end its practice of honouring an aryaniser remains in progress. It is significant, however, that the university appears to be taking its moral responsibilities more seriously than Oxford and Cambridge, which still refuse to dissociate themselves from the highly dubious Alfred Toepfer Foundation.

It is obviously tempting for many in public positions to prefer setting up Holocaust monuments and museums to grasping the nettle of securing justice for individual survivors and their descendants. Admittedly, the search for compensation can provide rich pickings for entrepreneurial lawyers. Moreover, there is the argument that, by continuing to press for even basic compensation or restitution, survivors and their families risk sparking anti-Semitism, while also provoking parallel claims by dispossessed Palestinians. None of these are valid arguments. Many elderly Holocaust victims remain in poverty. Statues, memorials and days of remembrance are no substitute for basic justice and balanced history.