How Reparations were Secured for Victims of the Holocaust

Berkshire Jewish Film Festival to host eminent negotiator for the Jewish Claims Conference, Ambassador Stuart E. Eizenstat 

By Ambassador Stuart E. Eizenstat / Special to the BJV

On Monday, July 17 at 8 p.m., Ambassador Eizenstat will speak at the Berkshire Jewish Film Festival (at the Duffin Theater, Lenox Memorial High School, 197 East Street in Lenox).

As the special negotiator for the Jewish Claims Conference in our negotiations with Germany for World War II reparations and compensation for Holocaust survivors, I am especially pleased that the Berkshire Jewish Film Festival is sponsoring Reckonings, a remarkable documentary jointly commissioned by the German Federal Ministry of Finance and the Jewish Claims Conference. It has been shown from New York and the German embassy in Washington to Berlin, always to great acclaim.

Reckonings tells the story of how, out of the devastation of the Jewish communities in Europe in the Holocaust (6 million, including 1.5 million children) caused by Nazi Germany, for the past 75 years Germany and the Jewish claims conference have worked as partners to provide material benefits to holocaust survivors. This helps them live out their remaining years with a dignity denied them in their youth.

It is the first time in the history of warfare that a successor to a defeated nation, here the Federal Republic of Germany, accepted responsibility for the injuries caused by its predecessor, Nazi Germany. Germany’s first postwar chancellor after Adolph Hitler, Konrad Adenauer, proclaimed on September 15, 1951, “Unspeakable crimes have been committed in the name of the German people, calling for moral and material indemnity.”

Shortly after Adenauer’s announcement, another first occurred, breaking new ground in international law and morality. For the first time a non-profit organization, the Jewish Claims Conference, was created by 23 Jewish organizations, with the support of the young state of Israel, to negotiate on behalf of Holocaust survivors worldwide with a sovereign nation.

This laid the groundwork for the historic 1952 Luxembourg Agreement, with Israel’s prime minister David ben Gurion, Adenauer, and World Jewish Congress president Nahum Goldman. Since then, Germany has paid over $90 billion to Holocaust survivors (but not to heirs of victims who were killed in the holocaust) under its federal indemnification laws, most in negotiations with the claims conference. Since 2009, when I became special negotiator for the Claims Conference, we have obtained some $9 billion.

As dramatized by Reckonings, the Luxembourg Agreements were highly controversial on both sides. Menachem begin, then the leader of the Herut/Likud party in the Knesset, called reparations “blood money” and led violent demonstrations against accepting German money. It narrowly passed the Knesset. Adenauer faced stiff opposition in his government, with his finance minister threatening to resign.

The negotiations are always tough, because they represent German taxpayers’ money, but fair, with a common commitment to help survivors in their declining years. Their history is one of continued expansion of eligibility standards with less time required in concentration camps, ghettos, in hiding and under false identities, for a variety of programs: one-time hardship payments; Article 2 pensions; flight victims from the murderous Einzeitengrupings to the Soviet Union; child survivors who suffered particular trauma; children on the kinder-transports to England; payments to survivors in Romania and Morocco; and recently, special supplemental payments to the poorest of the poor. Most of the programs are income tested.

After the end of the Cold War, and the reunification of West and east Germany, the Federal Republic accepted responsibility for payment of survivors in the former German democratic republic. In addition, the German government recognized successor organizations to take title to Nazi-confiscated Jewish property in the former East Germany and try to find heirs.

In recent years, we have placed special emphasis on home care and social service funding to allow poor elderly survivors to receive assistance in their apartments, rather than go into old age homes, which in much of the former soviet union and east bloc do not exist or are in terrible conditions.

I am inspired that there is no “Holocaust fatigue” among German government officials. Rather than waning over the decades, as might have been expected, to the great credit of the German government and people, payments to survivors are being expanded. I am negotiating with German officials who were not even born during World War II, but still feel a sense of responsibility to survivors.

Yet with all of this, of the 240,000 Holocaust survivors worldwide, more than half live in or near poverty: over 90 percent in the Former Soviet Union, and central and eastern Europe; 35 percent in Israel; and 30 percent in the United States. This is unacceptable for those who suffered so greatly in their youth.

With survivors now well over 80 years old; with fewer eyewitnesses alive to tell their stories to the next generations; with rising antisemitism, and Holocaust denial and distortion on social media, and sheer Holocaust ignorance – the recent claims conference survey of young Americans between 18-39, almost 60 percent could not identify what Auschwitz was – we are paying special attention in our negotiations with Germany, to Holocaust education. In our most recent round in Berlin in May, Germany agreed to fund Holocaust education to the claims conference for projects around the world, for over $100 million through 2027.

I hope there will be a wide Berkshire audience to watch Reckonings, which compellingly provides an important recounting of history, with lessons to make our troubled world today a better place.

Ambassador Stuart Eizenstat, in his long career of public service, has held key senior positions including chief White House domestic policy adviser to President Jimmy Carter (1977-1981); U.S. Ambassador to the European Union, Under Secretary of Commerce for International Trade, Under Secretary of State for Economic, Business and Agricultural Affairs, and Deputy Secretary of the Treasury in the Clinton Administration (1993-2001).

Much of the interest in providing belated justice for victims of the Holocaust and other victims of Nazi tyranny during World War II was the result of his leadership of the Clinton Administration as Special Representative of the President and Secretary of State on Holocaust-Era Issues (1993-2001). His well-reviewed book on these events, Imperfect Justice: Looted Assets, Slave Labor, and the Unfinished Business of World War II, was translated into German, French, Czech, and Hebrew.

In addition, during the Obama Administration, Ambassador Eizenstat served as Special Advisor on Holocaust-Era Issues to two secretaries of state. He negotiated significant Holocaust agreements with the governments of Lithuania (2011) and France (2014) and was also the principal US negotiator for the Terezin Declaration with 46 countries (2009) and the agreement with over 40 countries on Best Practices and Guidelines for the Restitution and/or Compensation of Private (immovable) Property Confiscated by the Nazis and their Collaborators between 1933-1945. During the Trump administration, he was appointed by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo as Expert Advisor to the State Department on Holocaust-Era Issues (2018-2021). He is currently serving as Special Adviser to Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Holocaust issues in the Biden Administration. President Biden recently named him the Chairman of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

His most recent book is President Carter: The White House Years, has been hailed as the definitive history of the Carter Administration.