Never Again: Israel, Germany Mark 60 Years Since Signing of Holocaust Reparations Agreement

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BERLIN - On Wednesday afternoon of last week, with the temperature hovering near the freezing mark, around 20 people gathered outside a residential building on 10 Wichmannstrasse in this city's Tiergarten neighborhood, not far from where Hitler's bunker once stood. They had come to pay their final respects to a woman none of them had known, who lived at this address before being sent to her death in Auschwitz.

Seventy years had passed since then. The original building, destroyed in the war, has been replaced by an ugly concrete structure. Reuven Merhav, of Jerusalem, has visited Berlin countless times but it was not until some weeks ago that he succeeded in putting together this memorial ceremony for his grandmother, Elsa Adler (nee Elias ).

Solpersteine ("stumbling blocks" ) - cement cubes covered with brass plaques attached bearing the names and biographical details of Holocaust victims associated with the location had just been set into the sidewalk. There were three stones, for Elsa, her sister Gertrude and her brother Alfred.

Elsa was 65 when she was sent to Auschwitz. Elsa's daughter immigrated to Israel before the Holocaust and never told Reuven, her son, about his grandmother.

"It was the silent generation. They didn't talk about it, nor did we ask," says Merhav, a retired member of Israel's diplomatic and intelligence services and former director general of the Foreign Ministry.

Reuven's mother did not adjust to life in Israel. She returned to Germany a decade after the war and remained until her death, in 1995. "For years I would visit her," he recalled, "but we didn't talk. She lived in a world of her own."

But Merhav became increasingly curious about his family history. He began his own research, with the help of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, which represents survivors in compensation talks with Germany. Merhav is chairman of the board, an unpaid position.

Each year Merhav goes to Berlin for the negotiations with Germany's finance ministry, held in the Wilhelmstrasse building that was once the headquarters of Luftwaffe commander Hermann Goering.

Merhav describes finding himself, during a walk in between sessions, at the site of his grandmother's house, "a new corner building in the heart of an area that was bombed at the end of the war."

"I thought to myself, there's already a big monument to the Holocaust of European Jewry, there's a monument to the 1933 book-burning on the Bebelplatz but here, in this house, three people lived. Three fates. A few years from now my brother and I will no longer be here. Nor is there a grave. Nothing will remain."

Each stone tells a story

On that particular Wednesday a skullcap-wearing clarinetist filled the air with a sad melody as Gunter Demnig, the man behind the solpersteine project, set the stones commemorating Merhav's family. Since 1993 Demnig has installed around 38,000 solpersteine in half a dozen European countries.

"Even after 38,000 solpersteine, this is not a routine thing: Each stone represents different people and their destinies," Demnig said, adding, "There's a difference between opening a history book and reading an abstract number like six million, and seeing a stone that tells a family story about a murder or expulsion, a story that brings history to life."

Just a week before, on the anniversary of Kristallnacht, neo-Nazis had destroyed 11 such stones in the east German city of Greifswald. "It has happened 100 times to date," Demnig explained, "nothing compared to the total. But we will replace them as quickly as we can, of course."

Afterward Merhav went on to another ceremony held in Berlin, held by the German finance ministry to mark the 60th anniversary of the reparations agreement signed in Luxembourg between Germany and Israel on September 10, 1952.

"The infrastructure in Israel was old and backward. The country was on the edge of the abyss and could not pay for sugar and fuel, while the population doubled every three years," noted Merhav. "The German money made it possible to build an infrastructure for highways, railways, industry and ships. Today nobody denies that the reparations agreement was the most important thing that happened to us [Israelis]: The Germans paid in goods and it all worked like clockwork; thus was built the infrastructure for the immigrant-absorbing State of Israel."

The agreement was profoundly controversial in Israel; many people, including the leader of the Israeli opposition at the time, Menachem Begin, were against any relationship with Germany and argued that Israel should not help Germany's readmittance into the family of nations.

The complexity extended beyond the emotional realm, into the legal one. As Claims Conference VP Shlomo Gur, a former director general of the State Comptroller's Office and the Justice Ministry, explains, it was a contract between two states, West Germany and Israel, that did not exist during the period to which it refers, and which includes a third party that is not subject to international law, the Jewish people.

"It was also the first time a country that was defeated in a war promised to pay individual reparations to victims of that war," Gur says.

Reporting in Haaretz in April 1952 from Wassenaar, Holland, where negotiations were being held, Robert Walsh wrote: "The whole problem is more complicated than many people thought. The German won't offer a large sum of money on a silver platter. They're willing to pay; they're not misleading us. They also admit the justice of the Israeli claims despite the absence of an accepted legal basis. But let's not forget that the sums being discussed are huge. It's easy to plunder and destroy, but it's hard to pay such sums by normal means."

And there were sensitivities to be considered. "The Israelis didn't want to shake hands with the Germans, so someone from [Prime Minister David] Ben-Gurion's security detail suggested using the largest room and placing a huge table in it, which would make contact between the sides impossible," Merhav relates.

The Claims Conference was established to represent world Jewry vis-a-vis Germany and to distribute the reparations to individual survivors. It includes representatives from Jewish organizations, Holocaust survivors and the Israeli government. Members continue to meet each year with German officials to agree on compensation payments for the following year.

According to Claims Conference figures Germany has paid out $70 billion to 800,000 Jewish Holocaust survivors in about 90 countries through its offices. "We hit them over the head with hammers, we shocked them, so they would understand that they were responsible for the suffering of additional populations too," Merhav says. In 2008 Germany recognized the compensation claims of Jewish survivors of the Nazi siege of Leningrad, and in 2011 eligibility for compensation was extended to thousands of Jews who fled from the Nazis from places that were not occupied, such as Moscow. Germany also agreed to compensate Moroccan Jews who were deprived of freedom of movement during the Holocaust era.

Germany's payments to Holocaust victims increase each year, as the age of the remaining survivors continues to rise, together with per-person health costs.

"Some people will say $70 billion is not enough and that we're entitled to $300 billion. In light of all the Einsteins and Rubinsteins and other geniuses who were murdered in the Holocaust, $70 billion really isn't enough. The human capital, the suffering of the survivors and the material theft cannot be quantified at all," Merhav says.

Corruption claims

A documentary that was aired on Israeli television in 2008, alleging that the Claims Conference was withholding payments from survivors, dealt a major blow to the organization's reputation.

The Claims Conference sued filmmakers Orly Vilnai and Guy Meroz and their production company for libel. The claims were settled earlier this year with an apology and a payment from the filmmakers, that was distributed to survivors.

Werner Getzer, state secretary of the German Federal Ministry of Finance, attended the memorial ceremony for Merhav's grandmother. The two men have sat across from each other on the negotiating table many times. "As long as Holocaust victims are alive, Germany must acknowledge its historic responsible to the Jewish victims," Getzer told Haaretz. "That's the declared intention of the German government: To guarantee that the payment of reparations to victims of the Nazis will continue until the end of their lives."

When asked if there are dissenting voices in Germany, Getzer acknowledged the existence of "only isolated" opposition to the continued reparations arrangement.

"The young people aren't always fully aware of the historical implications of the reparations," Getzer said, adding, "Many don't know that 70 years after the end of World War II Germany is still paying reparations. We have to be able to explain to them that the suffering Germany caused to the Holocaust victims still exists today. One of them once said to me: 'It's good that you're helping us. But the best thing you can do for us is to tell your children about it."

The negotiations between Germany and the Claims Conference are "very difficult and unpleasant" at times, admits Claims Conference executive vice president Greg Schneider. "There are emotions and questions of ethics and money involved here. We try to keep the relations professional," Schneider says, adding, "Without the emotional aspect the negotiations would not be meaningful, and without the professional aspect we wouldn't be able to do it."

Survivors also participate in the negotiations directly, as Schneider explains. They "tell the Germans in great detail what they experienced. For example, when we discuss the question 'How many months did a person have to be in the ghetto in order to be eligible for a pension,'" survivors will describe what is what like for them. "It's not easy," Schneider says. "Sometimes the Germans say 'We can't,' and we answer 'You must. It's a moral issue.'"

How would he sum up the 60-year history of reparations? "The money is not the issue, it never was and never will be," Schneider stresses. "The issue is the Germans' recognition and their understanding of its significance. That's what enabled the reconciliation between the Jewish people and Germany, that's what enabled the two nations to progress to the next stage."

Claims Conference and German government representatives meeting in July, 2012.Credit: Mark Katz

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