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Europe's halting path to resolve Nazi era

The first checks could go out next week from a $4.5 billion fund for slave laborers.

By Peter Ford Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 4, 2001


Belatedly, painfully, and often grudgingly, European governments and businesses are making amends to victims of the Nazis more than half a century after the end of World War II.

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As early as next week, compensation checks will be sent to the first of an estimated 1.5 million survivors of Nazi slave-labor camps. The German parliament voted last week to unblock a $4.5 billion fund - the latest in a series of international steps over the past five years that have raised nearly $10 billion for Holocaust survivors and heirs of those who perished. The new fund marked an end to what German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder called "the last great open chapter of our historical responsibility."

But if Europeans feel a material obligation to close the chapter - in a way that Japan, for example, still feels unable to do - they also feel a moral obligation to keep memory alive.

"We have tried to put a financial full stop to the darkest chapter in our history," said Otto Lambsdorff, Schroder's negotiator for the fund. "There cannot and must not be a moral full stop. Only if we recognize that can there be a way out of the dark past into a bright future."

Nor is material restitution over: A group representing Roma (Gypsies) is preparing a lawsuit against IBM, claiming its machines helped Adolf Hitler identify and send to their deaths 600,000 Roma.

The case is the newest in a wave of claims that began in 1997, when Swiss banks came under pressure from international Jewish groups to release funds held in accounts that had lain dormant since 1945, and which were thought to belong to Holocaust victims. Hauled before a US court, the banks agreed to establish a $1.25 billion fund.

The pressure has since spread to companies that employed forced or slave labor during the Nazi era - including Ford and Volkswagen - to insurance companies that have not paid out claims to heirs, and to art galleries holding looted paintings.

Though Germany and other countries had paid out tens of billions of dollars in individual claims over the years, it was only in the mid-1990s that attention focused on mass compensation. "The monstrosity of the Shoah was so great that survivors on both sides were not really able to face it," suggests Anton Pelinka, a professor of politics at Innsbruck University in Austria. "Only a generation with nothing to do with [the Holocaust] could face it; you need a certain distance."

"It takes 30, 40, 50 years for these issues to be confronted," agrees Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress in New York. "And not just for moral reasons. If we had had the documents we have now 50 years ago, the people we would have approached (for compensation) would have been the criminals. Now there is no personal guilt; you can get redress."

Those documents - from national archives in former East Germany, the United States, and elsewhere - emerged only after the fall of the Berlin Wall, says Shimon Samuels, head of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Paris. The end of the cold war "produced a domino transparency effect."

Also, "people tended to focus on the murder cases in the Holocaust," says Lothar Evers at the German Association for Information and Support to Nazi Victims in Cologne. "It took some time to look at the robbery aspect."