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"Organizing for Reparations: Lessons from the Holocaust,"

by Marc Masurovsky November/December 2002 issue of Poverty & Race

Editor’s Note: I recently met Marc Masurovsky at a bar-mitzvah reception, where he described to me his work, for the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, in researching and verifying that during World War II a specific person was at a specific place of persecution, engaged in either forced or slave labor. Based on this evidence, reparations claims, for the persecutee or his/her heir, are then filed. Marc notes, “The sum this person receives is symbolic at best because no sum of money can adequately compensate for the pain and suffering endured during years of persecution under the Nazi yoke, the loss of family, jobs and home; the traumatic circumstances of dehumanization, eviction, pauperization, deportation, enslavement and witness to atrocities against fellow human beings.” Prior to this job, he headed a small research team at the Presidential Advisory Commission on Holocaust-Era Assets in the United States, focusing on how much privately-owned gold had fallen into Nazi hands and been recast into bars and coins that were later deposited in central banks and ultimately sold to other central banks, including and especially the Federal Reserve Bank system of the United States; such data were designed to produce a figure that can serve as a basis for reparations by the United States for its role in illegally absorbing the property of Jewish victims of the Holocaust during and after World War II.

What particularly struck me about Marc's account of his work, aside from the research methods, was his description of the way in which Jewish groups organized to research and implement a reparations program of vast proportions, a program that has found wide acceptance among the nations as well as the public. It seemed to me that an account of this element of the Holocaust reparations story might provide useful lessons for the issue of slave labor reparations with respect to the African-American community. We'd be interested to hear from readers regarding the relevance and applicability of these two by no means unrelated issues. - CH

The issue is reparations (financial compensation for loss of objects or property), as opposed to restitution (material recovery of lost objects or property). The difference between the two notions is important because there has been a tendency to confuse them and substitute one for the other. Reparations can never constitute an exact reimbursement for actual losses suffered by a victim of an act of persecution. It is a symbolic gesture aimed at recognizing that something terribly wrong occurred which inflicted irreparable harm to this individual on account of his/her identity—be it ethnic, racial, religious, sexual, and/or political. For our purposes, the emphasis is on ethnic, racial and religious identity. I speak here about Nazi persecutions aimed at the Jewish population of continental Europe and North Africa. The acts of persecution were deliberate, state-sponsored, and part of a general program aimed at enslaving and exterminating the vast majority, if not the totality, of members of the Jewish faith living and working in Europe in the 1930s and 1940s. Had the Nazis achieved their heinous mission, eight to ten million Jews would have perished in the Holocaust. The fact that only six million died is no consolation.

Why reparations? By 1944, Jewish leaders, lay religious figures, political and intellectual figures in the United States, Switzerland and Great Britain had awakened to the immensity of the crimes being committed in Europe in the name of racial supremacy and National Socialism. Government officials in Washington, DC, and London, both civilian and military, grappled with the preparations for administering war-torn Europe after an Allied military victory over the Third Reich, and especially with the inevitable, unfathomable humanitarian catastrophe that lay ahead of them. Part of this unprecedented societal crisis was the fact that millions of men, women and children had been dispossessed, reduced to slavery and subjected to the cruelest forms of punishment in specially-built compounds called “concentration camps,” and forced to work for the German war machine over a six-year period -- between 1939 and 1945. An average of 10% of the enslaved Jewish population survived Nazi atrocities. The question facing the Western Power -- the United States, Great Britain and France -- was: How to right the wrong that they suffered.

The idea of reparations had first been used in the aftermath of World War I as a form of punishment to make Germany pay for the damage it caused during four years of trench warfare. Here, the accused nation was forced to pay the aggrieved nations it had attacked and fought against. Thirty-five years later, the Allied powers (absent the Soviets, who had agreed at the July 1945 Potsdam Conference to relinquish any title to enemy property seized in Western Europe by the Allies) insisted that Germany pay reparations as well, but this time, owing to the complexity of the crimes for which its leaders were being held accountable -- genocide, slavery, plunder, as well as military aggression -- reparations included compensation to individuals for losses they had suffered. Hence, the unprecedented nature of the Allied reparations program in the wake of the Second World War.

Creating a Reparations Program

How would the Jewish victims of Nazism be compensated for what they had suffered? The governments of the Allied powers realized that administration and enforcement of a program aimed at assessing the needs of each persecuted and surviving individual would overwhelm their resources and paralyze their program to rehabilitate European nations and rebuild their infrastructure, while overseeing the military occupation of Germany and Austria. An international treaty was ratified in the spring of 1946 -- the Paris Reparations Conference -- which designated two organizations to oversee relief and rehabilitation efforts for surviving Jews who had been persecuted by the Nazis: the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (AJDC) and the Jewish Restitution Successor Organization (JRSO). Eight American and European Jewish groups had chartered the JRSO for the purpose of seeking reparations for Jewish victims of the Holocaust after gaining title to Jewish properties left unclaimed by their persecuted owners. The AJDC and the Jewish Agency for Palestine shared the leadership functions of the JRSO. (Details of these arrangements are found in Benjamin Ferencz, Two Generations in Perspective, H. Schneiderman, Ed., Monde Publishers, New York, 1957; website

The post-war campaign for Jewish reparations received an added impetus from Nahum Goldmann, the charismatic post-war leader of the World Jewish Congress (WJC). Jewish delegates from 32 countries had assembled in Geneva in 1936 to coordinate their efforts aimed at combating Nazism and anti-Semitism, defending Jewish rights worldwide and advocating for the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Through its Institute of Jewish Affairs (co-sponsored by the American Jewish Congress), the WJC had authored a number of pioneering studies in 1943 and 1944 that argued in favor of a massive reparations program to cover damages inflicted by the Nazis on the Jewish communities of Europe.

In 1949, the Federal Republic of Germany was born, and with it, the U.S. occupation of Germany ended. A new regime of compensation was therefore mandated to ensure that those who had been persecuted by the Nazis would still receive some form of reparations from the Germans. The JRSO and the WJC coalesced in 1951 to found the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany (Claims Conference). Representatives of 23 national and international Jewish groups chartered this new organization to enter into negotiations with the German government for the purpose of obtaining reparations for Jewish survivors. The Chancellor of the newly-established Federal Republic of Germany (FRG), Konrad Adenauer, accepted the fact that Germany had to make some form of payment for the crimes it had committed against the Jews. Although opposed at the time by many Israelis (including the late prime minister of Israel, Menahem Begin) as “blood money,” the FRG signed a series of landmark agreements with Israel and the Claims Conference which have since cost the German government upwards of $60 billion in reparations payments to hundreds of thousands of survivors. Some of those monies were initially earmarked for relief and reconstruction projects in Israel (less than $1 billion), housing thousands of refugees in temporary tent cities. The Claims Conference administered the rest of these funds on behalf of Holocaust survivors and needy Jews living in destitution in Eastern Europe. The German government also provided direct aid to individual survivors through its Wiedergutmachung program (literally, “making good,” or reparations).

The success of the Jewish organizations in obtaining multi-billion dollar reparations settlements over the past four decades stems in part from their collective agreement that, in principle, the Germans were morally responsible for compensating the Jewish people for their irreparable losses, knowing full well that no amount of money could ever make up for the loss of six million lives and untold masses of individual and communal properties. International reparations agreements between the former Allied powers and the German state facilitated these negotiations because they established some of the legal frameworks by which claims for reparations could be made on behalf of individual victims. Furthermore, the leadership of these organizations (Nahum Goldmann from the WJC, Saul Kagan from the Claims Conference) infused the negotiations with their charisma and well-established credentials as respected leaders of the Jewish community.
To summarize: a successful reparations strategy for Jewish victims of the Holocaust combined strong leadership, consensus on minimalist positions -- reparations at all cost -- that brought to the table very different, rival groups and a favorable legal and political climate.

Individual Claims

How does a survivor get compensated for his or her time spent as a slave laborer during Nazi rule? One way is to go to court. To illustrate: In 1953, a Jewish survivor from Auschwitz sued the German chemical combine, IG Farben, in a Land (District) Court in Frankfurt -- the corporate seat of the company -- for “back pay” and “reparation” of the “material prejudice” he had suffered while working for Farben against his will. The court ruled in his favor. Farben appealed, and the equivalent of the State Supreme Court was asked to rule on this landmark case. The Court asked Farben to reach a compromise for the purpose of settling all claims that would arise as a result of their use of slave labor at Auschwitz. The company, upon request of the German court, contacted the Claims Conference, the official spokesperson for 23 Jewish organizations seeking reparations from the German government.

Farben and the Claims Conference reached an agreement whereby the German firm would set aside 30 million Deutsch Marks (DM) -- roughly $8 million, or about $1,250 to each of more than five thousand Farben claimants -- to “alleviate the suffering endured” by the former slave laborers. It specified, however, that this gesture was precisely that -- a gesture aimed at showing its goodwill towards the former Auschwitz inmates. The Claims Conference acted as the designated disbursing agency for the former Jewish inmates. Each claimant had to demonstrate that he/she had spent at least six months at Farben’s Auschwitz facility in order to receive a modicum amount of 3,000 DM. As a condition for receiving the settlement, each claimant signed a waiver by which he/she agreed not to seek any further damages from Farben. For those survivors who refused to adhere to the settlement with Farben, their only recourse to obtain compensation was to take on Farben as individual petitioners through the German courts -- a costly and lengthy process. Moreover, the dearth of publicly available records at the time of the settlement made it close to impossible for these survivors to prove they had ever been “employed” at Farben. Their names were present on captured German lists of deportees, but that was not sufficient to prove their presence at the Farben rubber-making facility near Auschwitz.

After 50 years, millions of pages of previously unavailable documents are now accessible in American and European archives to any and all who are interested in the issue of slave labor. The petitioners are in a better position now than ever before to obtain some form of compensation for as many as five years and as little as six months of slave labor. But the process of obtaining compensation has not changed. Two avenues are available: the global settlement reached by institutions that act as the claimant’s representative or the individual course of action through the courts of the country where the company is based. The former is cheaper and less satisfying because the “reparation” is definitely symbolic at best. The latter is very expensive and the chances of winning in a court of law are perhaps greater today than they were in the 1950s. To wit, a Jewish survivor won a $100,000 settlement this year in a suit filed against the Swiss Bank Corporation (SBC) for its role in misappropriating her family’s assets on deposit at the SBC’s main branch in Bern during and after World War II. That action succeeded after more than six years through the federal courts of the United States (the SBC has assets in the U.S. which a federal judge could attach, as long as the judge was convinced that jurisdiction existed to justify such a seizure).

The Role of American Companies

American companies have still not been sued for their use of slave labor in Nazi-occupied Europe. A 1943 U.S. government census of American corporations overseas revealed the existence of more than 300 American subsidiaries operating in Germany alone, in violation of the numerous American laws aimed at ceasing American private- sector activity that might benefit the Nazis. Some of those subsidiaries were wholly owned ventures, while others were German-American joint ventures. A number of them manufactured goods for the German government and used laborers drawn from concentration camps throughout Europe. Evidence surfaced in recent years proving that American automobile manufacturers like Ford used slave labor, and that American banks like JP Morgan and Chase recorded millions of dollars in profits during the war years, especially in occupied France. For domestic political reasons, the American government never punished any of these companies for wartime wrongdoing at the service of the Reich, although a number of American firms were prosecuted and fined during the war for continuing to consult with their German and Italian colleagues on price-fixing and market-regulating matters governing the sale and distribution of products overseas.

Any legal action by the descendants of African-Americans who were held in conditions of servitude that succeeds against American companies which profited from their slave labor will serve as a reminder to Holocaust survivors that they too can take on these companies in American courts for the crimes they committed over 60 years ago in Nazi-occupied Europe. A two-pronged strategy -- collective action against these firms as well as individual cases -- might become the Trojan Horse that releases the floodgates of reparations.


Marc Masurovsky ( is – in addition to the biographical information contained in the Editor’s Note above – co-founder of the Holocaust Art Restitution Project, and has served as an historian for plaintiffs in class action lawsuits filed against three leading Swiss banks, and against the U.S. government on behalf of Hungarian Jewish survivors for recovery of items lost on the so-called Gold Train.


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