Keep or destroy. I pondered on which pile to place each “Wiedergutmachung” document; the irony of a selection process for Holocaust Reparation paperwork was not lost.
I began feeding the ‘dispensable’ papers to the shredder to join sliced Medicare statements, but abruptly pressed STOP. Evidently, these weren’t merely relics from years of clerical duty for my parents. A year after my mother’s death, I allowed the memories to pour in.
“Germany” was one of my first spoken words and its people the featured players of my childhood nightmares. They lurked in empty lots, and would allow me to pass safely if I could accurately guess the number of pebbles in them. Or, as my father once suggested in a fit of resurfaced rage, they would ask me to choose who should survive – my younger sister or my cat. In my sober moments, I internalized three mantras: Don’t buy anything made there; Don’t visit; and Never learn or speak the language.
This virtual Berlin Wall toppled in the mid-1950s, though, when it was announced that Germany would start paying reparations to Holocaust survivors. They wanted acknowledgement and compensation for their suffering and needed money to help restart their lives. They also knew how to stay alive, as their common label suggests. They soon renounced the third vow and accepted the requirement to communicate exclusively in German with “The Restitution,” the all-powerful department that administered the pensions. While most survivors applied, some didn’t want the “blood money”; it could never compensate for their losses and they didn’t want Germany to feel absolved.
Another requirement of the application process was providing witnesses who could testify to having been with the applicants in places they claimed to be during the war. To locate them, ads were placed in the Yiddish Forward. Perhaps a reader and my parents shared a bunk at Auschwitz or Bergen Belsen, were neighbors in a ghetto, walked beside each other on a death march, did forced labor together, or all of the above. I recall how they stared at each other when they met the normalized versions of the skeletons they’d last seen. Questions abounded. “Did you live in a DP Camp?” “Are you making a good living?” The reunions often went on for hours.
After the lengthy application process was completed, my parents were awarded pensions as compensation for “schaden an körper oder gesundheit” (damage to body or health), and a precise value was attached to each one’s pain and suffering.
My mother, Sarah Bick, was born in 1924 in Lodz, Poland, and in 1940 was imprisoned in the Lodz Ghetto, where her father died of starvation. She was deported in 1944 to Auschwitz with her mother, brother, and sister, but she alone survived Mengele’s selections. After being sent to several other camps, she arrived at Bergen Belsen, where she was liberated by the English on April 15, 1945. She had tuberculosis and typhus, was severely malnourished, and had lost many teeth. When she died in 2018, her monthly compensation was approximately $700.00 (the amount fluctuated with the value of the Euro and reflects small increases over the years).
My father, Morris Berkowitz, was born in 1909 and had a wife and two young children when the war started. He lived in a region in the Carpathians that was part of Czechoslovakia when he grew up, but reverted to Greater Hungary in 1939. The Jews of his area were subjected to mounting anti-Semitic rules and brutality by the local population, but did not experience the full impact of the Holocaust until 1944, when Hungarian Jews were deported. My father survived Auschwitz, death marches, and Bergen Belsen, from which he too was liberated. By then, he had lost his wife and children, his mother, and seven of his nine siblings. He had typhus, lung disease, blood poisoning in his foot, and weighed 90 pounds. His allotted monthly pension was around $500 when he died in 2008.
In 2006, as my parents grew frail, I took over many of their duties. An important one was the annual completion of the ‘Amtliche Lebensbescheinigung’ (Official Life Certificate form) on which it’s required to document proof of being alive and include the signature of a notary. The form is mailed to Germany and must arrive before a clearly stated deadline. My first attempt at this task led to the letter never arriving and the pension almost being terminated. Fortunately, I found there was a branch office in New York, and after overcoming my innate fear of direct interaction with Germans, phoned and became acquainted with Martina Jones, the remarkable woman who became my contact person. “Just send the form to our office, and we’ll send it on to Germany for you.” She always did.
As my parents’ health continued to decline, I hired home attendants. This became unaffordable, though, when my father died in 2008 and his pension and social security disbursements ended. It was especially dire because my mother now had advanced dementia and live-in companions were essential. Thankfully, Germany came to the rescue again with money designated for the increasing needs of the remaining survivors. These funds, together with the ongoing pension, allowed my mother to live in reasonable comfort until the time of her death.
The reparations were a lifeline for thousands of other survivors, as well, but a question lingers. Has the “Wiedergutmachung” fully accomplished its literal meaning (to make it good again). Does it truly signify Germany’s regret and, if so, has it been sustained? Has it led to forgiveness? Healing?
I believe that Germany’s reparations, whether voluntary or not, must be viewed as an expression of remorse. Chancellor Adenauer said in 1951, “unspeakable crimes were perpetrated in the name of the German people, which impose upon them the obligation to make moral and material amends.” As for Germany’s continuing contrition, it’s my hope that the hatemongers will be silenced by the reasonable masses so that the current anti-Semitic outpourings will subside.
Regarding forgiveness from the victims, while it could never be fully realized during their lifetimes, there was genuine progress. I felt it keenly in 1975 when my father looked on appreciatively at my husband’s new BMW. I also realized how much closer we were to reconciliation when I notified Martina of my mother’s passing. She expressed heartfelt condolences and I, in turn, genuine gratitude. Affirmations of trust and friendship were exchanged between the country that perpetrated one of the worst crimes ever committed against humanity, and its victims.
Memories of the Holocaust must never be lost, and we need to remain vigilant. However, as new generations are born in Germany that continue to offer contrition, descendants of survivors should help complete the path to forgiveness. I look forward to visiting Berlin.