By Rich Walter and Ken Stein | Center for Israel Education
The idea of the Jewish people being compensated for the devastating losses suffered in the Holocaust emerged shortly after the end of World War II.
In 1945, Chaim Weizmann, then serving as the president of the World Zionist Organization, submitted a memorandum to the victorious powers from the war, asserting that “in view of the mass murder, the human suffering, the annihilation of spiritual, intellectual, and creative forces, which are without parallel in the history of mankind,” the Germans should make “restitution of property including buildings, installations, equipment, funds, bonds, stocks and shares, and valuables, as well as cultural, literary, and artistic treasures.”
Weizmann’s request was not part of the Allied negotiations with Germany, and in March 1951, Israeli Foreign Minister Moshe Sharett submitted a request to the Allies for $1.5 billion to be paid by the West German government. The amount was based on the cost that Israel calculated it would take to absorb 500,000 Holocaust survivors.
After a series of back-channel, secret negotiations, West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer announced a willingness to negotiate with Israel and representatives of Diaspora Jewry to compensate the Nazis’ Jewish victims for material damages.
In January 1952, the matter was put to the Knesset, and the contentious debate gripped the nation. For two days, emotional speeches and personal verbal attacks were delivered in the Israeli parliament while demonstrators threw stones and tangled with police.
On Jan. 9, the Knesset voted 61-50 with five abstentions and four members absent to enter into negotiations with West Germany.
During the ensuing months, more demonstrations against the negotiations occurred across Israel. Menachem Begin, the leader of the opposition Herut Party, who staunchly opposed accepting any German reparations, led many of the mass protests.
Addressing the Knesset during the debate, Begin declared: “The fact that West Germany is a democracy nowadays does not exonerate it from its Nazi past. … Half of the employees at Adenauer’s Foreign Office are members of the Nazi Party. And with these people you are going to negotiate — with the murderers who laid down the ground for the annihilation of millions of our brethren while telling the whole world that the persecution of Jews is ‘horrendous propaganda’?”
Begin did not want to put a price on the deaths of Jews.
Nonetheless, on Sept. 10, 1952, Sharett and Adenauer signed an agreement in Luxembourg, calling for West Germany to pay $845 million to Israel in annual installments over 14 years.
Coming during the country’s first five years, when Israel experienced economic stress from the need to grow its infrastructure and absorb hundreds of thousands of Jews, the capital infusion was welcome.
Over the next decade, reparation funds represented approximately 20 percent of the country’s development budget. Israel used the term reparations, while West Germany used the term “Wiedergutmachung,” literally translated as to “make whole,” which for many Israelis had the offensive meaning of making things equal.
Up to 2002, West Germany paid more than 100 billion marks to victims who survived Nazi crimes. The 2002 American Jewish Yearbook has a detailed article about Holocaust reparations at www.bjpa.org/Publications/details.cfm?PublicationID=14734.