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Conference on Jewish Material Claims against Germany


CONFERENCE ON JEWISH MATERIAL CLAIMS AGAINST GERMANY , umbrella organization established in New York in 1951 by 23 national and international Jewish organizations representing Diaspora Jewish life in the West. Its aims were to obtain funds for the relief, rehabilitation, and resettlement of Jewish victims of Nazi persecution, and the rebuilding of Jewish communal life; and to obtain indemnification for injuries inflicted upon victims of Nazi persecution and restitution for properties confiscated by the Nazis.

The suggestion to call the Conference was made by the Government of Israel, which in 1951 said it was entitled to claim reparations from Germany, because it was responsible for the absorption and rehabilitation of the survivors of the Holocaust. The Conference was convened by Dr. Nahum *Goldmann, chairman of the Jewish Agency; he was elected its president. West German Chancellor Konrad *Adenauer issued an invitation to negotiate in a speech on the eve of Rosh ha-Shanah 1951, when he said "unspeakable crimes were perpetrated in the name of the German people, which impose upon them the obligation to make moral and material amends."

The idea of negotiations with West Germany was strongly opposed by various Jewish circles. There were riots in the Knesset before the Israeli government narrowly agreed in January 1952 to negotiate with West Germany. Opponents argued that the wrong caused to the Jewish people by Nazi Germany was of such a nature and magnitude that it was irreparable. They also maintained that to exchange this wrong for some "blood money" was morally and historically repugnant and likely to lead gradually to a "forgive and forget" policy. The partisans for negotiations did not dispute the basic assumption of the irreparability of the wrong but emphasized the differences between material claims and moral-historical claims, the latter to remain unaffected by the former.

The government of Israel and the Conference opened formal negotiations with the German Federal Republic in March 1952 at The Hague. On September 10, 1952, an agreement signed in Luxembourg between the West German government and the Conference was embodied in two protocols. The first protocol called for the enactment of German legislation to provide compensation and restitution to Holocaust survivors. Three German Federal Indemnification Laws (known as Bundesentschädigungsgesetze, beg) were passed between 1953 and 1965. These laws, which established the legal framework for compensation for "victims of National Socialist persecution," mandated payments for victims in the West for personal and professional injuries. The Federal Restitution Law (Bundesrueckerstattungsgesetz, brueg-eg) enacted in 1957 was designed to compensate Nazi victims for loss of personal valuables, bank accounts, and other movable properties confiscated by Nazi authorities. In 1964, as a result of Conference pressure, the German parliament enacted amendments to the brueg which enlarged the volume of compensation payments and expanded the scope of eligibility. By 2000, under the terms of the first protocol, West Germany had paid more than dm 100 billion in compensation to individual victims of Nazi persecution. The German term for the measures is Wiedergutmachung, which is not used by the Jewish community because the term means "to make whole."

Under the second protocol, the German government agreed to provide the Conference with dm 450 million, over a decade, for the relief, rehabilitation, and resettlement of Jewish victims of Nazi persecution. This payment was in recognition of uncompensated Jewish losses. Of the early allocations, 76% was applied to relief, rehabilitation, and resettlement of Nazi victims, 20% to cultural and educational reconstruction, and approximately 4% to administration, including costs of the Israel Purchasing Mission in Germany (see *Restitution and Indemnification). These projects included educational institutions, community and youth centers, synagogues and other religious institutions, homes for the aged, children's homes and kindergartens, summer camps, and medical institutions. Of 750,000 Jewish victims of Nazi persecution living in European countries other than the Soviet Union, 225,000 became beneficiaries of aid for relief, rehabilitation, and resettlement, often through Conference financing of programs, primarily of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. Conference allocations to the *Unitedhias Service assisted the migration of 49,000 Jews from European countries.

The Conference helped finance the United Restitution Organization, which provided hundreds of thousands of Nazi victims with legal aid in connection with their restitution and indemnification claims. Conference allocations for cultural and educational programs totaled $19,450,000. Four major institutions for the commemoration and documentation of the Holocaust were the principal beneficiaries of the Conference: the *Yad Vashem Authority, Jerusalem; the combined projects of the *yivo Institute, New York, and Yad Vashem; the *Centre de Documentation Juive Contemporaire and the Memorial to the Unknown Jewish Martyr, Paris; and the *Wiener Library, London.

The Conference was the first organization to establish a special program recognizing the Jewish community's moral obligation to assist Hassidei Umot ha-Olam, the *Righteous Among the Nations, who at considerable personal risk had saved Jews and who later were in need of financial assistance.

Conference allocations from the second protocol ended in 1964. In 1965 the Conference established the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture to serve as a living memorial to the Jews who perished in the Holocaust. The Foundation activities began with a capital of $10,432,000 allocated by the Conference.

The Conference continued to negotiate with Germany for compensation for individual victims after the three indemnification laws had been enacted. It believed there were serious deficiencies in West Germany's indemnification laws, which originally were limited to certain Nazi victims who were in the West by October 1953. Scores of thousands of victims were subsequently able to flee from Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. In 1980 the Conference reached an agreement with West Germany for the creation of the Hardship Fund, which provided one-time payments to victims, primarily from Eastern Europe, who arrived in the West after the beg deadline. More than 250,000 victims received payments from the Hardship Fund in its first two decades.

East Germany never compensated Nazi victims. It argued that it was an anti-fascist state, and it did not consider itself a successor to Hitler's Germany. When the United States established diplomatic relations with the German Democratic Republic, the Conference initiated efforts to obtain compensation and restitution from East Germany. An agreement was not reached until after German reunification, when Holocaust survivors in the West who had received minimal or no previous compensation became eligible for annuities from Germany. A separate fund for Jewish victims in Central and Eastern Europe was established in 1998.

In its first decade, the Conference reached agreements with individual German companies – ig Farben, Siemens, Krupp, aeg, Telefunken, and Rheinmetall – to provide compensation for Jews who had been slave laborers during the Nazi era. In 2000 the Conference represented Jewish victims in a multilateral agreement with the German government and industry in which dm 10 billion was provided as compensation for slave and forced labor. Since 1952 the Conference has concluded some 25 agreements with European governments and industry.

The unified German government also designated the Conference as a "Successor Organization," which gave it title to unclaimed and heirless individual Jewish properties and the properties of dissolved Jewish communities and organizations in the former East Germany. About 80% of the funds generated by the Successor Organization were used for projects that provided social welfare services to survivors; 20% was used to finance research, documentation, and education about the Holocaust. From 1995 through 2000, the Conference allocated more than $400 million from the proceeds of heirless Jewish properties in the former East Germany to projects that aid survivors. About 60% of these funds were used in Israel, while some 25% were for projects in the former Soviet Union.

The Conference leadership and membership remained stable over a half-century. Goldmann remained president until his death in 1982; he was succeeded by Rabbi Israel Miller, who served until shortly before his death in 2002. The executive functions were subsequently divided between the president and chairman, Rabbi Israel Singer and Julius Berman, respectively. The first director of the Conference was Saul Kagan, who served until his retirement in 1998. He was succeeded by Gideon Taylor.

Survivors organizations – the *American Gathering / Federation of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and the Centre of Organizations of Holocaust Survivors in Israel – joined the Conference in 1989. Jewish organizations from Central and Eastern Europe were not specifically admitted to the Conference, although in 2000 the board was expanded. It included one "pan-European representative" and bolstered Israel's membership with "four eminent Israeli personalities."

The Conference was sui generis in Jewish life. The founding principle – that direct compensation be paid to individual surviving victims of atrocities – was unprecedented in 1951. It was also unprecedented that a voluntary consortium of Jewish organizations would be recognized as a legitimate negotiating partner with a sovereign state, West Germany. The Conference's member organizations reflected broad religious and ideological points of view that often were antagonistic and yet collaborated to pursue assistance that ultimately benefited more than a half-million victims of the Nazis.


Claims Conference, Twenty Years Later: Activities of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, 1952–1972; Annual Reports (1954– ); M. Henry, "Fifty Years of Holocaust Compensation," in: American Jewish Year Book (2002).

[Marilyn Henry (2nd ed.)]

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