New Wave of Shoah Claims Holocaust Groups Demand More Compensation from Germany

By in Jerusalem

Part 2: 'Just Give Us the Money'


Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion (left) meets the German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer in New York in this 1960 archive photo.
DPA

Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion (left) meets the German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer in New York in this 1960 archive photo.

Israeli Minister of Pensioners Affairs Rafi Eitan is the cabinet minister responsible for the issue. He is just under 1.7 meters (5' 6") tall and wears the kind of large, black-rimmed glasses that were in style in the 1970s. Eitan is 80. In the last parliamentary election, he and his newly founded pensioners' party Gil did surprisingly well and captured seven seats in the Knesset.

Eitan was never squeamish when it came to defending the interests of the Jewish state. He worked for the country's foreign intelligence agency, the Mossad, for more than 25 years. He led the team that kidnapped Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in Argentina in 1960 and brought him to Israel. He is still banned from entering the United States today, because he recruited American intelligence agent Jonathan Pollard as a spy. Pollard was sentenced to life in prison.

Eitan has little use for diplomatic niceties, as Berlin has already learned. In a letter he wrote in August to the head of the German Chancellery, Thomas de Maizière, Eitan demanded that Berlin forgive all of Israel's debt to Germany -- a total of about €500 million. Israel, he wrote, wanted to deposit the money into a fund for Holocaust survivors. When Deputy Finance Minister Karl Diller visited Jerusalem recently, Eitan repeated his unusual proposal. When Diller told him that Germany could hardly comply with his wish, the minister replied: "Then just give us the money."

Eitan has a long list of demands. In addition to debt cancellation, he wants the German government to provide about €26 million a year for a group of 8,000 Holocaust survivors who have yet to receive any compensation at all. He also wants the Germans to recognize the so-called "second circle" survivors who managed to escape internment in ghettos or camps by fleeing Nazi-occupied areas. The Israeli government has allocated €90 million to help this group of people.

"As long as all of these people are alive," says Eitan, "the German government is responsible for them." He also supports the demands of the children of the Shoah. "Legally speaking, an Israeli survivor cannot sue the German state," he says. "But I see this from a moral, not a legal perspective. The German government cannot deny its responsibility."

Officials at Berlin's government ministries have varying opinions on just how far this responsibility goes. Diplomats in the Foreign Ministry are fundamentally willing to talk, partly because they are only too aware of the methods the Adenauer administration used to reduce compensation payments. Under its policy, compensation was only paid to those who had been imprisoned for at least six months in a concentration camp or one year in the ghetto. Untold numbers of Nazi victims were excluded because they were not part of the "German linguistic and cultural sphere."

The budget watchdogs at the Finance Ministry are worried that the claims could lead to billions in new expenditures. They point out that in addition to the Israeli state, many survivors were compensated individually, resulting in €13.3 billion in payments going to Israel. The Finance Ministry only recently provided another €100 million in compensation for former ghetto workers, says spokesman Torsten Albig, adding "there are no further plans at this time."

"This is certainly a large amount in absolute terms," admits Noach Flug, chairman of the Center of Organizations for Holocaust Survivors in Israel. "But compared to the damage caused by Nazi Germany, it's relatively little." Flug equates the payments to the annual cost of one pack of cigarettes for each German citizen. "Is that a lot?" asks Flug, an Auschwitz survivor himself.

But there is another group of plaintiffs who are eyed with suspicion, even by Israeli critics of past compensation programs. These are the children of Holocaust survivors, the so-called second generation. Psychologists assume that some of them -- estimates put the proportion at between 5 and 10 percent -- have literally inherited the trauma of their parents. A class action suit has been filed against Germany on behalf of these second-generation survivors -- something that the author Teitelbaum calls a "scandal" that trivializes the suffering of actual survivors.

Israeli attorney Gideon Fisher filed the class action. His law firm has its offices in the Azrieli Center, one of the most expensive office complexes in Tel Aviv. Fisher himself enjoys a view of the Mediterranean from his office on the 39th floor. "We had no other choice but to go to court," he claims, insisting that he tried to make the German government more aware of the second generation's problems. He met twice with German Ambassador Harald Kindermann in Tel Aviv, says Fisher -- but Kindermann broke off the negotiations.

But there are doubts about Fisher's version of events. It was more or less by accident that the attorney happened to be invited to a dinner on March 11 at Kindermann's residence in Herzliya, an upscale Tel Aviv suburb that is home to many diplomats. As he was leaving, Fisher took the ambassador aside and mentioned the children of Holocaust survivors. Kindermann, who has made it a matter of principle to meet with anyone who wants to discuss an issue related to the Holocaust, agreed to meet with Fisher.

Four days later, Kindermann met with the attorney at the German embassy. Fisher brought along another man, Baruch Mazor, who he introduced as the director of the Fisher Fund. Fisher established the fund a few years ago in memory of his parents, Molly and Josef Fisher, both Holocaust survivors. Ambassador Kindermann promised to help Fisher in his search for donors to the fund. The men agreed that historians and trauma experts would analyze the issue first.

When Kindermann read the morning press reports four weeks later, on Friday, Apr. 13, he could hardly believe his eyes. "Lawsuit: Recognize 2nd Generation as Shoah Victims" read the headline on the front page of the tabloid Yedioth Ahronoth. The article cited language from the suit as well as quoting the lawyer who drew it up: Gideon Fisher.

Officials at the embassy are now convinced that Fisher had already prepared the suit long ago, and that the sole purpose of meeting Kindermann was to be able to say that they had tried settling the matter out of court, but the Germans were uncooperative. The Fisher Fund plays a central role in the complaint, where it is named as the administrator of the funds Fisher plans to collect from the German government. The fund's Web site provides a form for those wishing to join the class action. Mazor, the fund's director, claims that the victims had applied tremendous pressure to go ahead with the suit as soon as possible.

Fisher is proud of the fact that his fund's website is scoring more and more Google hits these days. The class action on behalf of the second generation has made him known around the world. He recently got a call from China, where the children of survivors of the 1937 Nanking Massacre are planning to sue the Japanese government. "If the German government refuses to work with us," says Fisher, "this only creates more pressure. It can't just stick its head in the sand like an ostrich."

Of course, that isn't Berlin's intention at all. The Foreign Ministry has been working on a solution for some time, and it has not ruled out the possibility that Germany will in fact pay for the psychological treatment of the second generation. One of the recipients of the funds could be Amcha, an Israeli organization that has addressed the emotional consequences of the Holocaust for the last two decades.

According to the Foreign Ministry, various scenarios are possible. But further negotiations with Fisher, say the German diplomats, is not one of them.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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