In what the Holocaust Claims Conference is calling a “historic breakthrough”, the German government decided on Monday at pay restitution to victims of Nazi Germany now living in the former Soviet Union.
The group of 80,000 living survivors of the German genocide attempt had never received any compensation.
Former US Ambassador to the European Union Stuart Eizenstat, the Claims Conference’s Special Negotiator, praised Germany for “its willingness, so long after World War II, and in such challenging economic times today, to acknowledge it’s still ongoing historic responsibility.” The Chairman of the Claims conference claimed the group has been working for decades to get the country to pay restitution to this group of victims.
The compensation package comes just days after a German court’s decision to ban ritual circumcisions, halting one of the most fundamental practices of Jewish faith and raising an uproar of protest throughout the Jewish world.
Estimates are that the new compensation package will be worth approximately $300 million.
Most of the money will come from the Hardship Fund, and will consist of one-time payments of approximately $3,150 to Jews who fled the Nazis during their eastward push. Applications for Jews from Ukraine, Russia and other non-European Union countries in Eastern Europe will begin November 1.
Victims from the east will also now receive as much restitution as victims from western countries – approximately $370 per month.
Germany also decided to relax eligibility rules for those who receive restitution payments for being forced to go into hiding. Eligibility had only been for those who went into hiding for at least 12 months. Now the eligibility threshold will be six months.
German restitution to victims of the Holocaust was controversial when the idea was originally floated by West German leadership in the 1952 Luxemborg/Reparations Agreement. Signed by Israeli Prime Minister Moshe Sharett and West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, the agreement held Germany responsible for paying Israel for Jewish slave labor used by the Nazis and paying damages for persecution of Jews during the Holocaust. Private victims would also be paid for property stolen by the Nazis.
Advocates of the measure argued that the funds were a significant contribution to the building of Israel, helping Israel to absorb 500,000 refugees from war-torn Europe, and also helped create awareness of the Holocaust around the world. In the ten years following the signing of the agreement, West Germany paid three billion marks to the State of Israel for victims who left no surviving heirs. The money was used to build Israeli infrastructure and other projects. Half a million private victims have been paid over $60 billion.
Menacham Begin, then Herut party MK in Israel’s first Knesset, former Irgun fighter and future prime minister of Israel, was vehemently against the agreement, leading a large and violent demonstration against the measure. At the event, Begin told protesters “Our honor shall not be sold for money, our blood shall not be atoned by goods, we will wipe out the disgrace!”.
The opposition of some members of Israeli society of being given money to appease the loss of the Holocaust was so great that many attempts were made to thwart the agreement. In 1952, Dov Shilansky, a Holocaust survivor and former commander in Europe’s Jewish underground tried to bring explosives into Tel Aviv’s Foreign Ministry building in order to stop Israeli-German negotiations.
That same year, an assassination attempt on Adenauer led investigators back to Israel’s Herut party and its members from the Irgun.