The Board and Holocaust compensation

by Gwynne Robins

In 1945, the war ended and Jews started to emerge from the camps, from the forests and hiding.

They had lost their families, homes, businesses and possessions, and their bank accounts had been confiscated. Finally, although a 1951 survey had shown that only 5% of West Germans admitted feeling ‘guilty’ towards Jews, their Chancellor Konrad Adenauer admitted that “unspeakable crimes” had been committed in their names, and they were willing to compensate by paying reparations. Nahum Goldmann, World Jewish Congress president, established the Conference on Jewish Material Claims against Germany (Claims Conference) to negotiate a programme of indemnification to the Jewish people caused by Germany through the Holocaust.

At that time, Dr Erwin Spiro, a former judge in Germany who had settled in Cape Town in 1936 after being denied the right to work because he was Jewish, threw himself into the cause of obtaining financial compensation for our survivors, regarding it as a moral obligation. Ever since, assisting survivors with Holocaust compensation has been an important function of the Cape SAJBD.

This was particularly problematic last year because of COVID-19. Survivors are expected to provide the Claims Conference annual proof that they are still alive. In mid-November, they started to receive life certificates meant to have been posted to the German Claims Conference postbox by the end of October. But the deadline had passed, the post office would not accept post to Germany, courier companies would not deliver to a post box and physically-compromised seniors were reluctant to visit the post office or a commissioner of oaths.

After many emails to the New York office and a phone call to Frankfurt, it was finally agreed that an exception would be made because of COVID-19, the forms could be emailed, the German address was a mistake, and the deadline was extended to the end of November. Great relief all round.

Apart from the Wiedergutmachung (the first Holocaust compensation pensions), more programmes have become available and regulations relaxed, as the number of survivors decreased — self-interest playing a larger role than guilt in many.

When German industries like Siemens, BMW, Volkswagen and Opel, keen to extend into America, became confronted with numerous class action lawsuits, they formed a foundation called Remembrance, Responsibility and the Future in 1999 to pay slave and forced labourers on condition they promised not to sue them. These forms were lengthy and complicated and it took time to complete. As most survivors had been in ghettos and camps and were enslaved, over 140 000 Jewish survivors from more than 25 countries had to be paid, and I received many phone calls: “Why has Mrs X been paid, and I haven’t?” until eventually they all received the payment.

Then Jewish groups started investigating the money deposited in Swiss banks and insurance companies by Jews who were later murdered. The Swiss banks refused to release the money without proof of death. Unfortunately, Auschwitz did not provide death certificates. The efforts to undermine their secrecy laws brought much antisemitism to the fore in Switzerland, but in the end, enough evidence was uncovered through an international commission under former US Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger. It meant that the banks were forced to provide the details of thousands and thousands of unclaimed dormant accounts, the names could have filled two phone books. People were invited to come into our office to go through them, or I would do so for them. Some hopeful claimants phoned every few days as they remembered the names of other family members who might have invested money.

As the numbers of survivors shrank, previously rejected applications from Holocaust survivors for “Ghetto Pension” payments were re-evaluated, following three court decisions, and we received names of survivors, not all of whom we knew. One lived in the Strand and we had no address. I contacted Bnoth Zion Association and the synagogue until someone was found who knew who she was and accosted the startled woman on the beach.

Another had not been entitled to compensation because it did not apply in countries, like Greece, occupied by Germany for less than eighteen months – even though her father had been deported and she had been permanently injured by a blow from a Gestapo rifle butt. But she had moved. I knew she had joined the Milnerton Jewish Seniors — a member recalled that she had gone to her daughter on the Isle of Man. The Jewish community there said she had moved to London. The Board of Deputies of British Jews in London gave me the details of two survivor organisations. One had not heard of her, one said she had moved to Brighton. The Jewish community in Brighton traced her to a seniors’ home. I contacted the delighted social worker who went to the home to tell her news — but the survivor had died two weeks earlier!

New compensation programmes still arise, a Hardship fund, a child survivor fund, a Ghetto Pension, one for the 100 000 victims sent on Dutch trains to death camps, others for Austrian victims, a Hungarian fund, a French “Compensation of Victims of Spoliation Resulting from Anti-Semitic Legislation in Force”. As each new programme arises, we advertise it through the Cape Jewish Chronicle and assist survivors with their queries.

Nothing can compensate for the trauma, the loss of families and friends, for the horrors, starvation and fear, but if these funds can add a little dignity, a little comfort, it is better than nothing.

Gwynne Robins has historically aided community members with Holocaust Compensation queries and concerns. If you have a query, contact her on sajbd1@ctjc.co.za

Cape SA Jewish Board of Deputies website: www.capesajbd.org, Instagram, and Facebook page.

• Published in the print edition of the March/April Pesach 2021 issue. Download the March/April 2021 issue PDF here.

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