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Posted Tuesday, December 8, 1998



Charles Krauthammer
Washington Post Writers Group
December 7, 1998

WASHINGTON -- The pursuit of billions in Holocaust guilt money has gone from the unseemly to the disgraceful. What began as an attempt to locate actual confiscated Swiss bank accounts of individual Holocaust victims has turned into a treasure hunt for hungry tort lawyers and major Jewish organizations.

It all started with the $1.25 billion that the Swiss banks paid in settlement of Holocaust claims. That opened the floodgates. As chronicled by Barry Meier in the Nov. 29 New York Times, it has spurred personal-injury lawyers, class-action specialists, and major Jewish domos to seek similar bounties from banks (unredeemed accounts), insurers (unpaid death benefits) and manufacturers (uncompensated forced labor) throughout Europe.

What's wrong with that? What's wrong is that there are few survivors left who will actually benefit from this money transfer. It is late, very late for this kind of restitution. The war ended 53 years ago. Instead, what is happening is that the lawyers and community bureaucrats will reap the power and the payoff that comes from collecting in the name of those whose names are forever lost. They risk causing, to borrow a phrase from Abe Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League, "an industry to be made on the memory of victims."

Does that mean that nothing should be done? No. Individual victims who had their savings or property or art stolen should be allowed to seek restitution even at this late date. Jewish organizations should help by providing lawyers. And the lawyers should help by working pro bono, or at most, on salary.

But contingency fees? Class-action suits? Fishing for aged Jews from whom they can make a killing? The lawyers crisscross Europe in search of ever richer settlements to extract from any institution -- and oh, there are many -- with a tainted World War II past.

Is this what honoring the Holocaust has come to? A shakedown of Swiss banks, Austrian industry, German automakers -- the list grows daily -- that recalls the worst of racial hustling and class-action opportunism in the United States?

Soon no doubt to be added to the list: Ford and GM. What did they know and what did they do when their plants were taken over by the Nazis before and during World War II?

This is an important question. But it is work for scholars, not shysters. The Holocaust commands the preservation of memory. It is not an instrument for the generation of money. The dead are honored by learning the truth and never letting the world forget it, not by entering into rancorous negotiations with corporate leaders who represent a generation entirely innocent of these crimes.

Looting, moreover, was the least of the crimes of the Holocaust. Nor is it unique. The Holocaust itself, the deliberate mechanized racial murder of six million souls, is a singular crime. Wartime looting is not. It is commonplace. At the end of this bloodiest of centuries, to reduce the Holocaust to looting -- to focus memory on money -- is literally to debase the sacred.

Even Israel's acceptance 45 years ago of German reparations was problematic. But at least at that time one could make an argument from necessity: A people collectively made destitute and desperate by German depredations were entitled to German reparations. But today?

Today, the only thing certain to come out of this grotesque scramble for money is a revival of Shylockian stereotypes. This is particularly unfortunate, not just because in truth there is no people more given to philanthropy than the Jews. But also because this generation of Europeans has grown up more free of anti-Semitic poison than any in European history.

It is one thing to risk reviving dormant anti-Jewish feeling in defense, say, of a vital, living cause like Israel, heir to the civilization destroyed by the Nazis. But for this? For blood money from the Holocaust?

Should we find out and proclaim the truth about Holocaust looting? Of course. And truth about the forced labor. And truth about the industrialists who abetted the Nazi machine. And truth about the peoples of Europe who were silent -- or worse.

But money? It should be beneath the dignity of the Jewish people to accept it, let alone seek it.

© The Washington Post.
Our opinion

This is very similar to views which we expressed in ACTION REPORT in July 1998.

The above news item and headline are reproduced without editing other than typographical
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