Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

12 Av 5761 - August 1, 2001 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








Produced and housed by
Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Shema Yisrael Torah Network











German Reparations in the 50s: Zionist Boondoggle?
by Yated Ne'eman Staff

(This is the first of a two part article.)

The German reparations agreement signed with the State of Israel almost fifty years ago in the wake of the Holocaust was a better deal for the State than for individual Jews. In retrospect, it seems that even the State could have gotten a better deal.

After the terrible destruction in Europe, the State of Israel assumed the mantle of the heir of the Jewish people, especially with regard to receiving monetary reparations payments from Germany. At the time, the matter was extremely controversial in Israel.

In the agreement eventually reached between Israel and Germany, in the early 1950s, the Germans undertook to transfer $833 million over a 12-year period and in the form of goods only. With the help of this sum, the State of Israel took huge steps in the development of its infrastructure -- railway tracks and coaches, a merchant fleet, equipment for industry and the electricity economy, and more.

Germany, for its part, made significant inroads on its way to rehabilitation and acceptance as a legitimate nation.

However the individual Jews who suffered were given short shrift, and even the State got a short-term windfall but long-term liabilities.

According to Yair Sheleg writing in Ha'aretz, from a financial point of view the agreement was a complete Israeli failure.

Together with the collective agreement with the state, Israel signed a personal compensation agreement for Holocaust survivors around the world at the same time. In it, the Germans insisted that Israel be responsible for paying out compensation to Holocaust survivors who came to the country "up until January 1953."

Raul Teitelbaum, a former journalist and a member of the umbrella organization of Holocaust survivors in Israel who is currently writing a book on the reparation affair, notes that Israel consented to such a condition both because it feared losing the agreement in its entirety, and due to the fact that officials at the treasury estimated that it pertained to only a small group of people, around 3,000 in all.

In practice, however, just in 2000, the state paid monthly allowances based on this clause to some 50,000 individuals, at a total cost of $400 million. In plain terms: Over the past two years alone, the State of Israel has paid out compensation to Holocaust survivors in an amount almost equal to the full sum it received in the reparation agreement in nominal terms.

In retrospect, Teitelbaum says, "It is still difficult to understand how the Israeli and Jewish representatives agreed to some of the things; they can only be explained by a fear of letting an `opportunity' slip by."

Another way of putting it, is that such behavior is typical of extreme greed.

The most astounding detail, Teitelbaum notes, is the fact that German legislation, enacted in the wake of the agreements, makes no mention at all of the Jews, as a group which is entitled to such reparation; it only speaks of individuals "who were persecuted by the Nazi regime on the grounds of race, religion or political viewpoint," he says.

"This fits in with the fact that for a long time, there was no international recognition for the unique Jewish aspect of the Holocaust.

"In the Nuremberg trials, the issue of the extermination of the Jews was sidelined. Even Adenauer himself, in 1949, in his first speech in which he recognized German responsibility for the crimes of the Nazis, failed to mention the extermination of the Jews. What isn't clear is why did the Jews themselves agree to this?" Teitelbaum asks.

Furthermore, he says, the Germans haggled over every detail, usually ending in total capitulation on the Israeli side. For example, Israel initially demanded reparation of $1.5 billion, based on a calculation of 500,000 Holocaust survivors at a rate of $3,000 per immigrant.

Both estimations fell short; yet the Germans still rejected them. They immediately cut the numbers by a third, arguing that that was the responsibility of East Germany, which constituted one-third of the German people.

Thereafter, they requested more reductions, bringing the compensation down to its eventual sum of $833 million.

Other details of the agreements are no less problematic, not merely the fact that Israel took it upon itself to compensate people who had come to the country prior to 1953.

Even more humiliating was the agreement by Israel that the monthly allowances (as opposed to the lump sum) would be afforded only to "people of German culture."

Teitelbaum: "This clause distorted the entire significance of the reparation and gave rise to an absurd situation in which the ones who had suffered the most received the least. The dead got nothing; survivors from Eastern Europe, who had suffered the harshest conditions for the longest period of time, only received a small one-off payment; while the German Jews, many of whom had fled Germany before the Holocaust and were spared the threat of extermination, were the only ones who were afforded monthly allowances."

The one-off payment given to the remaining survivors was also determined in humiliating fashion, based on a "compensation rate" of DM 5 (slightly more than a dollar in 1951 terms) for each day spent in a concentration camp or ghetto.

Noah Flug, secretary-general of the umbrella organization of Holocaust survivors in Israel, says he once heard from one of the Jewish participants in the negotiations how such a rate was determined.

"He told me that his initial demand was for compensation of DM 150 a day, equal to the wage of a German laborer at the time. He says that Adenauer went pale and started to tremble, explaining that the German economy could not afford such a sum and that he could only agree to symbolic compensation. Then he mentioned the amount of DM 5 a day. Nahum Goldman [then chairman of the Jewish Agency who led the negotiations on behalf of the Jews - Y.S.] didn't consult with anyone and hurriedly agreed, and so the sum was born," Flug relates.

Officially, the grounds for the reparations were given as "the denying of freedom" to the Jews. The agreements also explicitly released Germany of any responsibility for compensating for forced labor during the Holocaust.

This oversight was the result of the determination by the Allied forces (excluding the former Soviet Union) that Germany would be exempt from paying such compensation prior to the signing of permanent peace agreements.

The Western Allies wanted West Germany to join the anti- Soviet bloc and hence looked to ease the pressure on the already unstable German economy in the wake of the war.

Permanent peace treaties were never signed, and Germany has held onto this clause to ward off claims for compensation for forced labor both in the reparation agreements it has signed and in its courts of law, which have dealt with private claims over the years.

Today, Teitelbaum is convinced that the Germans' eagerness for atonement could have led to far better agreements had the Israeli and Jewish representatives been less eager to get their hands on the money.

Historian Dvora Hacohen's book, The One Million Plan, which deals with the far-reaching plans of former prime minister David Ben-Gurion to bring one million Jews to Israel after the war, exposes some of the circumstances surrounding this eagerness.

Apparently, already in 1944, Ben-Gurion had planned to finance this grandiose plan with, among other sources, the reparations that Germany would be forced to pay after the war.

The opportunity to realize his plan arose when Goldman informed him of Adenauer's willingness to pay compensation. Ben-Gurion had no intentions of letting the chance slip by.

"The Israeli government, which held numerous debates on the collective reparation agreement that the state should accept, never once discussed the particulars of the personal compensation for the survivors. Apparently, the matter was of so little concern to them that one may suspect that perhaps they feared that raising claims in this area would come at the expense of the reparation to the state." Teitelbaum charges.

Teitelbaum also points out that the negotiating team did not include a single Holocaust survivor. The standard excuse for this was that they were not a formally organized group, with many even opposing the very idea of reparations.

One can safely assume that had they been included in the negotiations, they would have been far more insistent in their demands.


All material on this site is copyrighted and its use is restricted.
Click here for conditions of use.