Holocaust restitution after the Second World War has only led to a very partial compensation for Jewish pre-war properties. American financial expert Sidney Zabludoff has estimated that less than 20% of what was stolen has been restituted. Well over one hundred billion dollars in current values was not returned to Jewish owners or their heirs.
At the end of the previous century, a second round of restitution took place in a number of countries, including Switzerland, the Netherlands and Norway. This concerned a small percentage of what was taken overall. Thus, there remain many unresolved issues, a few of which are currently being confronted.
Some of these concern European railways. These transported a massive number of Jews at the beginning of the road to their extermination. In December 2014, France and the United States agreed on a compensation package for Holocaust victims living outside France, who were deported by the French national rail company, SNCF. Survivors in some other countries were excluded from payment in the agreement.
The two countries jointly announced a $60 million dollar compensation fund financed by the French government. France paid the sum to the US. The latter then paid it out to survivors residing outside France. The payments for individual survivors amounted to approximately $100,000. As part of the agreement, the US government promised to try to end all lawsuits and claims against SNCF in the US.
The agreement was reached as US lawmakers had attempted to have SNCF barred from rail contracts in the US because of its collaboration with the German occupiers of France during the Second World War. Of 76,000 Jews that SNCF transported to Nazi camps during the Holocaust, only 3000 survived.
Earlier, there had been unsuccessful financial claims in France against the SNCF. In 2006, Alain Lipietz and his sister Hélène sued the company. Lipietz was a member of the European Parliament for the Green Party at the time. The claimants requested reparations from the railway company for transporting members of their family to the French deportation camp in Drancy.
The Lipietz siblings won the initial court case. The tribunal in Toulouse ordered the French state and SNCF to pay a total of €60,000 to the family. The judges found that SNCF never voiced any objection to transporting such prisoners.
SNCF thereafter received 1800 claims for payment. A similar suit in 2003 had failed when a Paris court ruled that it could not establish that SNCF was responsible for transporting Jews during the Nazi occupation.
SNCF appealed the Toulouse judgement in favor of the Lipietz siblings. In 2007, the appeal judges in Bordeaux ruled that administrative courts could not decide SNCF's liability. Thus, SNCF did not have to pay.
The highest French administrative court, the Counsel of State, declared itself not competent to rule about the issue.
SNCF had been criticized for years for its war-time role in the deportation of Jews. Several of its presidents understood that its war history was a delicate subject. In 1990, Jacques Fournier, then SNCF president, decided that all its archives — with a priority given to war-time archives — should be stored in a single location. Furthermore, a report on the history of the SNCF during the Second World War was prepared per his instructions.
In 2000, then president of the SNCF, Louis Gallois, decided that an exhibition of pictures of deported and murdered children would be displayed in 20 major French railway stations between 2002-2004. These were also exhibited at SNCF’s headquarters, the French parliament and the Paris municipality. The exhibit was viewed by an estimated one million people.
In 2008, the new SNCF president, Guillaume Pepy, expressed his regrets for the consequences of the SNCF’s conduct during the war. However, no payments were offered to those who had survived the transports. For this one had to wait for the earlier mentioned French-American agreement of 2014 which was only meant for a part of the survivors.
In the Netherlands, a single activist managed to convince the NS (Dutch Railways) to make payments to Dutch Holocaust survivors. Salo Muller -- whose parents were murdered in Auschwitz -- is a household name in Amsterdam. For many years, he was the physiotherapist of the major local football club Ajax.
Muller’s pressure forced the NS to ultimately offer payments to survivors it had transported, or alternately, to their spouses or children. Under the agreement, the company paid out approximately €40-50 million. These payments were made in 2020. They were recommended by an independent commission headed by former Amsterdam mayor, Job Cohen.
As there were many people who had been murdered leaving no family members, the commission also recommended that NS make a payment with respect to them. Concerning these payments, the NS ignored the opinion of the Jewish community. It decided to make payments of €5 million in total to four Dutch wartime remembrance centers. That decision was not a good one. Although NS paid out significant funds, bitterness toward the company in the Jewish community remains.
Already in 2005, then president of the NS, Aad Veenman, had unexpectedly offered an apology to the Jewish community for the company’s behavior during the war. Until then, its management had denied that it would apologize for the services its wartime predecessors had provided without any protest in the deportation process of most of Dutch Jewry.
After his success against the NS, Muller decided to table a legal claim against the German state. It refers to the wartime role of the German state railways, then the Deutsche Reichsbahn. Muller is asking for an apology and financial compensation for Dutch Holocaust survivors and next of kin.
His lawyer has written to German Chancellor Angela Merkel that the heirs of the wartime German railways have a moral and legal obligation to recognize their role in the suffering of the Jewish, Sinti and Roma people.
Muller, who is now 84, commented on Dutch television about the Reichsbahn:"I blame the railway company for knowingly transporting Jews and for killing those Jews in a terrible way.” The German railways ran around 100 transports from the Dutch border to Auschwitz and to the extermination camp, Sobibor.
A broader view is taken by a well-known Amsterdam Jewish lawyer, Herman Loonstein. In an interview with the daily Trouw, he said that many possessions of Dutch Jews, which were stolen during the war have still not been returned. Loonstein mentioned as examples artwork or houses that Jews who survived the German camps found in the possession of others after the war. He claims that the Dutch government makes no effort for such restitution and leaves the fight to the survivors. He also stated that the restitution that has taken place has been haphazard.
Loonstein has said that “the Second World War is, legally seen, far from ended.” He mentioned small issues such as Jews having had to pay municipalities for yellow stars they were forced to wear. Loonstein also mentioned that the Amsterdam electric tram company-- like the railways -- transported Jews in the deportation process within Amsterdam. The company refuses to deal with the compensation issue. Yet Loonstein stressed that the biggest remaining issues concern artwork and real estate.
Loonstein also told the interviewer as a curiosity, that one of his lawyer sons discovered that the ownership of an apartment owned by a Jew was transferred on the day of his deportation to one the Netherland’s best-known and major war criminals, Pieter Menten. Loonstein now wonders whether he can start a claim against the Dutch government. He assumes that the current owners may have acquired the apartment in good faith. Yet, he says that the Dutch government carries some responsibility for this affair. The notaries who collaborated in the transfer of stolen Jewish real estate were partly Dutch state employees.
In view of all of this, it seems that additional Holocaust restitution will remain a topic of discussion both in private and in the media in several European countries for many years.
Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld is the emeritus Chairman of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He has been a strategic advisor for more than thirty years to some of the Western world’s leading corporations. Among the honors he received was the 2019 International Lion of Juda Award of the Canadian Institute for Jewish Research paying tribute to him as the recognized leading international authority on contemporary antisemitism. His main book on the subject is: The War of a Million Cuts The struggle against the delegitimization of Israel and the Jews and the growth of New antisemitism.