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Former German Jews Win a Big One Print E-mail

By Jay Bushinsky
December 24, 2007

Few journalists and even fewer politicians have shown much if any interest in the fact that only a tiny minority of German Jews or their heirs have been able to obtain financial restitution for the Nazis' confiscation and the Communists' nationalization of property they left behind in the defunct German Democratic Republic, i.e. East Germany.

Ironically, the Soviet-backed regime that established and ruled the GDR until its collapse facilitated the country's reunification, Oct. 3, 1990, refused to abide by the reparations agreement signed in 1952 by then-West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer and Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion.

The GDR's leaders contended that they too were persecuted by the Nazis because of their Communist affiliation and therefore harbored no guilt whatsoever.  This policy was detrimental to the Jews of eastern Germany who survived the Holocaust or their heirs.  It denied monetary redress for real estate worth hundreds of millions of dollars. 

This loss was magnified by the fact that a third of pre-Hitler Germany's Jewish population lived in the area designated as the Soviet Zone of occupation, including East Berlin.  It was inhabited by 165,000 of the 600,000 members of the pre-Nazi Jewish community.  Indeed, the federal republic acknowledged former east German Jewry's right to lay claim to the property it lost, but less than two years were allocated for the claimants to come forward with the requisite evidence.  The vast majority was unable to meet the arbitrary deadline and were it not for the assistance rendered by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany there would have been no exceptions to Berlin's arbitrary timetable.
 
The Claims Confernce's own statistical record speaks for itself.  By 2007, after it had won several extensions of the original deadline, 120,373 claims had been filed, its New York-based spokesperson, Hillary Kessler-Godin said.  Of these, only 11,539 were approved by the German authorities.  For its legal and other services, 20 per cent of each restitution payment was deducted and retained by the Claims Conference.

One claimant, Arnon Rubin, a retired engineer who survived the Holocaust in Poland by passing as a non-Jew and emigrated to Israel shortly after World War II, spent 15 years battling the German government, the Claims Conference and the State of Israel (which has shown little interest in this problem) to obtain compensation for a building in the former East Berlin (at Konrad-Bienkle Strasse 53) which had been bequesthed to his late father by an uncle who perished in a Nazi death camp.  The bequest was specified in the late Karl Birnbaum's will.

Rubin finally won, but the financial settlement was miniscule after the Claims Conference took its cut, legal costs were paid and the remainder was shared with his two sisters.  The most dramatic case of all is that of the Wertheim family's claim to compensation for a large swath of real estate in the former East Berlin that belonged to its nationwide department store complex. 

The Nazis seized the lucrative business shortly after they won the former Weimar Republic's ill-fated election of 1932 and authorized its reorganization as what became the Karstadt-Hertie chain.  After a prolonged legal struggle in which the Claims Conference played a pivotal and influential role, a German court awarded the Wertheim heirs (several of whom live in New Jersey) between 400 and 600 million euros in restitution for the real estate.  (West German had granted compensation for the business assets long beforehand thereby enabling Karstadt-Hertie to operate in the federal republic.) 

Karstadt-Hertie's lawyers are appealing the latest verdict, but independent experts believe that the court's award will not be cancelled despite the company's argument that it will cause enormous harm to its current effort to avoid a financial crisis.  The Claims Conference's executive-director, Gideon Taylor, hailed the case's outcome, noting that it will enhance its ability to provide monetary assistance to needy survivors and subsidize educational and cultural projects on their behalf in Israel and throughout the Jewish diaspora. 

However, the various organizations which represent the survivors, are critical of the Claims Conference's priorities, accusing it of allocating insufficient funds to elderly and ailing Jews who need much more help than they have been getting.  Although much has been said internationally, especially in Germany, about the vast sums paid by the federal government in reparations to the State of Israel (for heirless Jewish property) and the survivors -- officially put at 90 billion dollars --the National  Association of Jewish Holocaust Survivors argues that this "is relatively little, amounting to less than $1,000 for each German over the past 50 years, or about $20 per year.
 
Tom Segev of the daily Haaretz calculates it as 25 cents to 50 cents a week.  "In the interim," he writes, "they became one of the wealthiest countries in the world.  They owe their present standing, among other things, to their wise decision to compensate the Holocaust's survivors.  Had they not done so in the early 1950's, they would not have been welcomed so quickly into the family of nations and would also not be so rich today."

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