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.

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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.

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.

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"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."

Not that the murder cases are finished. German prosecutors are working on four outstanding cases against concentration-camp guards; a Munich court sentenced a former Nazi SS guard to life in prison last week, and an Australian court ordered the extradition to Latvia of a man accused of war crimes at a concentration camp there.

Educating the public about what happened is a key goal for French Nazi hunter Serge Klarsfeld. "Twenty-five years ago there was no mention of [the French collaborationist regime in] Vichy in schoolbooks," he recalls. "To change that attitude we needed a lever, and the trials served that purpose."

Later investigations had a similar effect: Most Germans were unaware of how critical the 10 million forced laborers were to the Nazi war effort until a claim for compensation was lodged.

In some countries, the shift in attitudes has led governments to acknowledge their roles. In France, President Jacques Chirac admitted for the first time in 1995 that the state was responsible for the deportation of French Jews to concentration camps.

Elsewhere, the process is slow. In Austria "the problem has been ignored since 1945, and the next generation will have to ... come to terms with Austria's past," says Professor Pelinka. The Swiss banks long hid behind bank-secrecy laws; German companies took a long time to come up with their share of the slave-labor fund; in France, "there is a huge discrepancy between declaratory policy and actual implementation," of compensation, complains Dr. Samuels. Of 7,000 claims lodged with a French commission, only 250 have been satisfied, he says. "People are dying. There is no way they will satisfy all the claims at this rate."

Most claims will never be satisfied. The victims are dead, or their records are lost. And clarifying events isn't a priority. Italy, for example, has refused to ask for the extradition of a German hiding in Argentina who is believed to have killed 80 Italian resistance fighters in 1945, because the resistance fighters were committing atrocities and the government "does not want to open a Pandora's box," says Samuels.

In Britain, the wartime government confiscated all assets belonging to "enemy aliens" - residents of countries occupied by the Nazis. Jews who had put their savings in British banks and then died, lost their money. The post-war government used it to compensate British firms whose property in Eastern Europe had fallen into Communist hands.

Tens of thousands of paintings looted by the Nazis have never been returned. About 2,000 have been returned since European governments agreed in 1998 on the principle of restitution, but most have come from public galleries.

"The hardest issue to tackle is the private galleries, the dealers and auctioneers" trading in looted art, says Mr. Steinberg.

But the atmosphere has changed. Where once willful ignorance prevailed, says Norbert Frei, a historian at Bochum University in Germany, "now it is desirable to make good what can be made good, though obviously that concerns only material claims."

On the moral front, compensation keeps the memory of the era alive and funds institutes and museums in Paris, Belgrade, Berlin, and Warsaw, among other places, and "they spread the message," says Mr. Klarsfeld.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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