Jerusalem & Babylon / Before It's Too Late

The rights of Holocaust survivors should not be hostage to the whims of the Jewish and Israeli establishments

A story in the New York Times on Wednesday highlighted the fact that not only in Israel are elderly Holocaust survivors fighting the government and the Jewish establishment for what they see as their rights for justice and reparations.

According to reporter, Eric Lichtblau, individual survivors living in the United States and descendants of those murdered in the Holocaust are finding that in their quest to press life-insurance claims with European companies such as Italian Generali, which insured hundreds of thousands of Jews before World War II, they are coming up not just against the company's hard-headed executives, but also against the U.S. State Department and leaders of major Jewish organizations. The individuals are discouraged from going to court for fear that they jeopardize agreements with these companies and the German government to pay hundreds of millions that will fund health care and other needs of elderly survivors.

This conflict has sparked off what is fast becoming an intense lobbying and media battle in Washington between the survivors and their champions, and those claiming to be acting in the cause of the greater good. It is impossible to make a moral judgment here. The American situation is very similar to that in Israel, where Holocaust survivors and their supporters have been accusing the government - every Israeli government since the first reparations agreement with West Germany in 1952 - of using the funds received from the German government for purposes other than the survivors' welfare, and basically for bartering away their right to seek personal redress.

In many ways, it is another version of the controversy surrounding the Claims Conference and its high-handed treatment of the entire reparations issue. In recent years, the ranks of the Conference's detractors have been growing as the allocation of funds to various educational projects, often connected to members of the Conference's board, has come under increasing scrutiny. As have the salaries of the grandees at the head of the organization, and the embezzlement scandal that came to light there last year involving a group of employees who over 15 years salted away almost $43 million.

The Holocaust may have ended 67 years ago this week, but the wars of the Jews are still raging. Why now? Because many survivors, after a long life of rebuilding, of not expecting favors from anyone, are asking themselves and others long overdue questions. They didn't have time to start checking up on their family's lost possessions, the life insurance their parents took out, as they were busy making a living in a new country. In retirement, they are finally wondering who is still making a profit from their rightful property, who bartered their rights away and why they never saw the returns.

There are other reasons. Eastern Europe is now largely democratic, while information technology allows easy access to databases and connections with other survivors around the world - but more than anything else, the age of the big, patron organization is over. In 1952, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and World Jewish Congress President Nahum Goldman secretly cobbled together the reparations agreement with Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, as a result of which Israel received a lump sum that saved its economy, and the Claims Conference was founded to handle compensations.

No one asked the survivors for their opinion. They were mainly young people, without families or connections, still struggling to find their place in a new world. Ben-Gurion was suspicious of them anyway - he thought that a human being who had succeeded in living through the hell of the death camps must have been twisted beyond repair.

Was this an immoral deal with the devil? Did Israel sell its self-respect for blood money? Menachem Begin certainly believed so as he lead a violent march in the Knesset, in what seemed to many as the first and so far only attempt at a coup d'etat in Israel. History seems to prove him wrong. Israel's fledgling economy received crucial oxygen, allowing it to absorb hundreds of thousands of immigrants, many of them survivors, who almost tripled the country's population in a decade.

Jewish families the world over (but not in the Soviet bloc ) enjoyed a relatively prosperous life, thanks to the renta from Germany. But this was still a relatively low price for Germany to pay on its short road back to international respectability.

To this day, billions of dollars worth of communal property throughout Europe, and especially in the former communist countries, has yet to be reclaimed, slave laborers have yet to be paid for work that filled the coffers of German corporations that still exist, thousands of invaluable art treasures reside in museums, galleries and private collections, and life insurance policies remain hidden in archives, never to be paid out to the rightful heirs. And suddenly, these survivors in their 80s and 90s are speaking up - not against the Germans, Italians, Poles, Russians and all the other nations still holding on to Jewish property, but against the assembled Jewish grandees, the great and good of the establishment. How dare they?

Yes, the World Jewish Congress, the Claims Conference, the Jewish Agency, the Israeli and American governments all fought and won billions for good Jewish causes, and also for the welfare of the survivors among their brethren. But even if it took over six decades for some of the survivors to find their own voices, and their actions may delay the next round of quiet agreements, they must be given satisfaction. The day when there are no longer any survivors among us may not be that far off, but that is no reason for acting as it is already here. Funding for the survivors' needs must not be hostage to the good will of European governments and corporations, it is the responsibility of the government in Israel and Jewish communities worldwide - and the funds can diverted if necessary from other, less urgent projects.

Meanwhile, the conferences and congresses should accord a last gesture of respect to the survivors, provide them with all the legal means at their disposal to pursue their cases with dignity, and stop insulting them by telling them what is their best interest.