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May 30, 2019 12:34 am

Rethinking Holocaust Restitution: A Case for Jewish Dignity

avatar by Gidon Ben-Zvi


A Nazi-enforced death march of Jewish women prisoners began from the Schlesiersee (today Sława) concentration camp in Upper Silesia in western Poland on Jan. 24, 1945, ending 106 days and some 800 kilometers later on May 5, 1945, in the town of Volary (German: Wallern) in Czechoslovakia. Photo: Yad Vashem.

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki recently asserted that his government would never agree to pay restitution for properties stolen from Jews during the Holocaust. This is in stark contrast to other former Soviet states of the European Union, which have passed comprehensive legislation regarding private property confiscated by the Nazis or successive regimes.

According to Gideon Taylor, chair of operations for the World Jewish Restitution Organization, Prime Minister Morawiecki’s statement is “deeply insensitive to Holocaust survivors and their families. … We call on Poland to meet its commitment to non-Jewish and Jewish property owners who have waited many years for Poland to provide them with a measure of justice.”

Holocaust restitution payments are a widely accepted way to correct a historic injustice — the systematic, state-sponsored persecution and murder of six million Jewish men, women, and children by the Nazi regime and its collaborators.

The guiding principle behind restitution is that human dignity that had been revoked can be regained by punishing lawbreakers and compensating victims. According to author and Holocaust survivor Jean Améry, human dignity was the primary virtue that the Nazis sought to eradicate.

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Unfortunately, reimbursement for Jewish property stolen by the Nazis and subsequent regimes has done little to restore the dignity of Jewish people living in Europe.

The European Union’s Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) published a report that found antisemitism to be intensifying on the continent. Jews are more and more worried about being harassed, according to this major survey of 12 EU countries.

The FRA notes that in these countries — which, except for Poland, have laws on the books for the compensation of property stolen from Jews during World War II — incidents of antisemitic abuse are so rampant that most victims don’t even bother to report them. The survey found that 47 percent of European Jews are worried about antisemitic verbal insults or harassment, and that 40 percent fear being physically attacked in the next 12 months.

According to Gideon Taylor, restitution is meant to “provide the means for survivors to live with the dignity that they deserve.” Yet dignity is in short supply for the approximately 200,000 people living in Israel whose lives were uprooted by the Nazis. A quarter of these individuals live in poverty.

The report documented how bureaucracy and the multiple agencies dedicated to Holocaust restitution may have helped contribute to a situation where survivors go hungry and suffer from cold and neglect. Organizational overhead is estimated to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

The Center for Organizations of Holocaust Survivors in Israel, made up of 55 organizations representing communities that suffered from Nazi persecution during World War II, states that its purpose is to “fight for the survivors’ rights in Israel and abroad, in order to allow them to live in dignity and ensure their welfare.”

Why have they failed?

Because the Holocaust restitution model is based on the application of retributive justice, a theory that considers punishment to be a morally acceptable response to crime. Meanwhile, restorative justice focuses on the needs of victims, instead of the need to satisfy the rule of law. While retributive justice is backwards looking, restorative justice looks forward to what’s best for society as a whole.

The primary need of Holocaust survivors and their descendants is to live in dignity. A one-time official apology and financial arrangement hasn’t produced dignified lives. Such an approach to obtaining justice brings to mind the debunked Catholic practice of selling indulgences as a way to reduce the amount of punishment one has to undergo for sins. In 1567, the church outlawed the sale of indulgences.

As Jackie Robinson said: “The most luxurious possession, the richest treasure anybody has, is his personal dignity.” Ultimately, it’s dignity that protects an individual from unjust treatment.

Gidon Ben-Zvi is an accomplished writer who left behind Hollywood starlight for Jerusalem stone. After serving in an IDF infantry unit for two-and-a-half years, Gidon returned to the United States, before settling in Israel where he aspires to raise a brood of children who speak English fluently — with an Israeli accent. In addition to writing for The Algemeiner, Ben-Zvi contributes to The Times of Israel, Jerusalem Post, CiF Watch, and blogs at Jerusalem State Of Mind.

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