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Reparations, restitution and the price of forgetting

The work of compensating victims and memorializing the Holocaust becomes ever more urgent and daunting as the last eyewitnesses die out
Survivors of Auschwitz arrive at the International Monument to the Victims of Fascism at the former concentration and extermination camp Auschwitz II-Birkenau on International Holocaust Remembrance Day in Oswiecim, Poland, Sunday, Jan. 27, 2019.(AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)
Survivors of Auschwitz arrive at the International Monument to the Victims of Fascism at the former concentration and extermination camp Auschwitz II-Birkenau on International Holocaust Remembrance Day in Oswiecim, Poland, Sunday, Jan. 27, 2019.(AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

International Holocaust Remembrance Day is a solemn occasion to remember the six million Jews, including one and a half million children, who were systematically murdered between 1933-1945; honor the 300,000 survivors still living worldwide, a third in Israel; and redouble our commitment to guarantee “never again.” It is a symbol of how far we have advanced in Holocaust remembrance, that the United Nations and countries around the world — including for the first time this year, the United Arab Emirates — are commemorating this solemn day.

There was nothing inevitable about the Holocaust. It is history’s most horrific example of what happens when people and governments are indifferent in the face of evil. 

My confrontation with the history of inaction by the United States and other free countries during the Holocaust occurred after I left the White House Staff of President Johnson and joined the presidential campaign of Vice President Humphrey, when I met a co-worker Arthur Morse, who had just published a path-breaking book While Six Million Died, exposing what President Roosevelt knew about the genocide of the Jews and failed to act upon. This was a shock to me since FDR was an icon, and I pledged to myself that if ever I was given the chance, I would work to achieve some measure of redemption for this shameful chapter of World War II history, which was unworthy of the brave US and allied forces who sacrificed to win the war, but whose governments did so little to save the Jews. 

Hitler’s original goal was to make Germany judenrein, free of Jews, but they had nowhere to go. Hitler proceeded carefully and methodically, taking one ghastly step after another, gauging German public and world reaction, and seeing none proceeded to the Final Solution. He got clear signals that the world did not care about the Jews. At the 1938 Evian Conference of over 30 countries called by the US to deal with the plight of German Jewish refugees, the US failed to take the lead to lift strict immigration quotas. And American Jewish leaders, concerned at raising antisemitic sentiment, failed to pressure Roosevelt enough.

Upon the liberation of the death camps, Nazi atrocities were revealed to the world by Supreme Allied Commander (later President) Eisenhower. But the enormity of the Shoah was not fully appreciated by the international community.

  • Only a tiny fraction of Nazi perpetrators were tried at Nuremberg.
  • Jews trying to reclaim their confiscated homes and businesses were driven off or even killed in Poland and Lithuania and post-war restitution laws in west Europe were inadequate.
  • Many survivors were placed in squalid Displaced Persons Camps.
  • The British kept over 50,000 survivors in camps in Cyprus, preventing them from entering Israel.

The new menace, the Soviet Union, increasingly preoccupied the United States and our Cold War allies and partners, while Nazi Germany and the Holocaust receded.  

The April 1961 trial in Jerusalem of Adolf Eichmann, following his dramatic capture by Israeli agents in Argentina, broadcast the human face of evil into living rooms and helped acquaint the world public with the staggering dimensions of the murder of the Jews.

Meanwhile, for the first time in history, a defeated country that committed ghastly crimes against civilians agreed to compensate their victims. In 1951, the first post-war German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer accepted responsibility “for the unspeakable crimes that have been committed in the name of the German people.”  Shortly afterward, 23 Jewish organizations created the Conference on Material Claims Against Germany. In a historic agreement in Luxembourg in September 1952, the State of Israel and the West German government agreed to direct payments to Survivors by Germany through the Claims Conference. Since then, Germany has paid over $80 billion to survivors. Appointed Special Negotiator in 2009, I have worked along with Roman Kent (z”l) and a Holocaust survivor team from Israel, Poland, and the UK to greatly expand eligibility and benefits of over $9 billion for low-income needy survivors — for example, increasing home care services from 34 million Euros in 2009 to over 600 million Euros in 2022.

The Holocaust was not only the largest genocide in world history; it was the largest theft, only a small fraction of which has been recovered. I led a unique effort during eight years in the Clinton Administration and then continuing in the Obama administration, negotiating more than $8 billion in recoveries for Holocaust survivors and heirs of victims from private companies for the harm they caused to civilians, mostly Jews, during World War II. From Swiss and French banks; German and Austrian slave labor companies; European insurance companies; as well as governments, including the French government for transporting Jews on their state-owned railway; the restitution or compensation of private and communal property; and the 1998 Washington Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art and 2009 Terezin Declaration, which has led to the recovery of thousands of the 600,000 Nazi looted artworks. 

It is estimated that some 50% of the 300,000 Holocaust Survivors in the world are poor or near-poor: 90% in the former Soviet Union and eastern Europe; 30% in the US; and 35% of the 150,000 in the State of Israel. It is unacceptable that those who suffered so grievously in their youth, should live their declining years with further indignities. 

But the final word on the Holocaust must be memory, not money. This is more important than ever with rising antisemitism and declining knowledge of the Holocaust. Survivors, the eyewitnesses, are passing away at the rate of 6% a year. A recent survey of American Millennials and so-called Generation Z young people showed more than half could not identify Auschwitz. 

The need to preserve memory led me to recommend to President Carter in 1978 a Presidential Commission on the Holocaust chaired by Elie Wiesel, which proposed the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. Since it opened in 1993, there have been 50 million visitors, some 90% non-Jews. Yad Vashem is one of the most visited sites in Israel next to the Western Wall, with approximately one million visitors per year since it opened in 1953. The new U.S. Ambassador to Israel, my long-time friend Tom Nides, made Yad Vashem his first stop upon arrival.

In January 2000, I worked with Swedish Prime Minister Han Goran Persson to establish what has become the Holocaust Remembrance Alliance of 35 countries to promote Holocaust education in their school systems. Unfortunately, not all of our 50 states have mandatory Holocaust education. In 2020, the US Congress passed the Never Again Holocaust Education Act to provide $10 million to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum to promote Holocaust education. And in our recent Claims Conference negotiations, the German government agreed to fund worldwide Holocaust education up to 18 million Euros by 2023. 

We must learn the lessons from the Holocaust in our own actions today.  

Finally, the United States must work to halt genocide and other atrocities, wherever they occur: President Biden and Secretary of State Blinken, whose stepfather Sam Pisar was a Holocaust survivor, have made human rights a major pillar of their foreign policy.

About the Author
During the Clinton administration, Stuart E. Eizenstat was the US ambassador to the European Union, undersecretary of commerce and of state, deputy secretary of the Treasury, and special representative of the president on Holocaust issues. During the Carter administration, he was the president’s White House chief domestic policy adviser. He co-chairs the Jewish People Policy Institute’s (JPPI) board of directors.
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