, , , ,

Published in 1999:

Well, what do you expect, reply the claimants, when so many of these cases refer to stolen assets? “We are not talking about putting a price on those who died, but on what was stolen from them,” declares Elan Steinberg, the executive director of the World Jewish Congress (WJC) in New York.

The Economist.  “Putting a price on the Holocaust.”  November 25, 1999.

Published today, July 17, 2013:

Holocaust survivors and victims’ heirs have received $1.24 billion from a Swiss fund set up after a scandal over dormant accounts of Jews killed in World War II, a magazine said Monday . . . The banks were accused of keeping money owned by Jews who had hidden funds in secret accounts in neutral Switzerland but then perished in the Holocaust, and of having given heirs the cold shoulder when they tried to track down the money.

AFP.  “Swiss Banks ‘Shoah fund’ paid out $1.24B'”.  YNet News, July 17, 2013.

I often repeat Hillel the Elder‘s “prime directive” — if I may borrow from Star Trek’s language — as he distilled it from the study of the Torah: “That which is distasteful to thee, do not do to another.”

That one thought, among other of Rabbi Hillel’s many judgments and observations, has provided not only Jews but a vast portion of the modern world with an outlook expressed in contemporary legal philosophy and liberalism.  However, there seems to me also a more roughly spoken basis for justice and peace between often adversarial and contentious humans: “Because it could happen to you!”

“Because it could happen to you,” the best law that we may develop between us must serve us both.

There are corollaries, including that ages old punch-the-shoulder game between brothers (“If you hit me, I’ll hit you back twice as hard”).

That one leads to equal bruising and a very doubtful “winner”.

As a language string, “It could happen to you” has a small life online as the title of a movie, also a domestic abuse blog, and a gay rights video produced in relation to the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) recently savaged by the U.S. Supreme Court, and as a line in a song sung by Frank Sinatra.

“Because it could happen to you” barely exists at all.

And yet what is our sense of fairness, of justice, if not wrapped around “because it could happen to you” integrated with “because it could happen to me”?

If not immediately involved in a crime as either criminal or victim, we are continuously engaged with the ethical and moral choices available to both.  )As an aside, I would note the best storytellers find the twisting moral core of their stories right fast).

Back on beam, Hillel the Elder also observed by way of a question, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?  If I am not for others, who am I?”

Again, “because it could happen to you” and you / I / we could wake to a world absent of compassion, empathy, measure, and reason.

“Because it could happen to you,” don’t make me wake up in that world, and because it could happen to me, it’s incumbent upon me to see that you not wake up in such a world either.

What Hitler’s poison did to Germans and then what the Nazis did to the Jews and others by way of theft of labor, property, and life has found some justice in reparations, and, however reluctant, Swiss cooperation in the restoration of funds left abandoned by way of Nazi murder has also contributed to justice.

I could end this post with this from The New York Times:

On Thursday, Mr. Kent opened his speech with a quotation from a German poet, Heinrich Heine, who converted to Christianity from Judaism. Mr. Kent drew a parallel, reflecting how the process of working with the former enemy toward a common goal has altered his perception.

“We survivors and the Germans of today are together united,” Mr. Kent said. “Both of us do not want our past to be our children’s future.”

Eddy, Melissa.  “For 60th Year, Germany Honors Duty to Pay Holocaust Victims.” The New York Times, November 17, 2012.

As sweet as sentiment may be and whatever good has come from a necessary and responsible reconciliation, one may wish not to set aside the Roma, who today with the Jews are again in the cross-hairs of a resurgent Hungarian nationalism, nor the Poles who got caught in the Nazi vice — with those in addition to losses, one wonders at the memories left in the forests and carried into the present by the now elderly remnant of World War II.

We have a long way to go, and not necessarily with reparations but with one another and a sturdy enough central concept of justice to serve the coming ages.

Additional Reference

With basic Wikipedia references in the area of justice, mention of Lassa Oppenheim (no relation to me, so far as I know), Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, I’ve included a little more in this section that I would usually; however, through the Holocaust story, from its 1930s prelude to its now 2010s epilogue, one may see also a window into a future with an international law and legal structure that better ensures fairness and justice for thee and me — perhaps because we should regard what we do to one another as part and parcel of what we do to ourselves — across the broadest cultural, ethnic, national, religious, and tribal global campus.

Ghosh, Palash.  “Germany to Pay Out $1 Billion in Reparations for Care of Aging Holocaust Survivors.”  International Business Times, May 29, 2013.

Jewish Virtual Library.  “Holocaust Restitution: German Reparations”:

On Sept. 20, 1945, three months after the end of World War IIChaim Weizmann, on behalf of the Jewish Agency, submitted to the governments of the USUSSRUK, and France, a memorandum demanding reparations, restitution, and indemnification due to the Jewish people from Germany for its involvement in the Holocaust. He appealed to the Allied Powers to include this claim in their own negotiations for reparations with Germany, 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.”

Powers, Charles.  In the Memory of the Forest.  Penguin Books, 1998.

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin

Spiegel Online International.  “Holocaust Reparations: Germany to Pay 722 Million Euros to Survivors.”  May 29, 2013.

Telushkin, Joseph.  “On One Foot: A new Nextbook Press biography of Hillel makes clear that the rabbi’s words and thoughts–though millennia old–resonate today.” Tablet, September 8, 2010.

Telushkin, Joseph.  Hillel: If Not Now, When?  Schocken, 2010.

Tzvi, Rina.  “Hungary Signs New Holocaust Survivor Reparation Deal.”  Arutz Sheva, July 7, 2013.

Wikipedia.  “Distributive Justice”.

Wikipedia.  “Hillel the Elder”.

Wikipedia.  “L. F. L. Oppenheim”: “Lassa Francis Lawrence Oppenheim (March 30, 1858 – October 7, 1919) was a renowned German jurist. He is regarded by many as the father of the modern discipline ofinternational law, especially the hard legal positivist school of thought. He inspired Joseph Raz and Prosper Weil.”

Wikipedia.  “Reparations Agreement between Israel and West Germany”:

The Reparations Agreement between Israel and West Germany(GermanLuxemburger AbkommenHebrewהסכם השילומים Heskem HaShillumim) was signed on September 10, 1952,[1] and entered in force on March 27, 1953.[2] According to the Agreement, West Germany was to payIsrael for the slave labor and persecution of Jews during the Holocaust, and to compensate for Jewish property that was stolen by the Nazis.

Wikipedia.  “Restorative justice”.

Wikipedia.  “Retributive justice”.

Wikipedia.  “Restorative justice”.