Moral Debt Worth More Than Money

Reading Richard Z. Chesnoff’s book, Pack of Thieves: How Hitler and Europe Plundered the Jews and Committed the Greatest Theft in History , is a good way to start an ulcer bleeding. It’s not that we didn’t know it. But here is the documentation, the figures, the anecdotes of camp survivors going back to homes taken by neighbors and not returned, of life insurance         unpaid, of recompense for slave labor ignored, of property stolen by those to whom it was entrusted, business, stocks, paintings looted all across the continent.

It makes the blood boil. The multitudes of these bureaucratic crimes are not abstract or theoretical-this book makes that abundantly clear. Jewish men and women and their children and grandchildren have found no justice, no legal recourse, nothing. This is not about the murder itself but about the things that followed in the wake of that murder. It is about the collusion of neutral countries supporting the Nazi war machine. It is about the petty, self-serving robbery of the vulnerable that went on long after the war’s end, long after Hitler disappeared into his bunker and the Marshall Plan rolled so merrily along.

Right now, there are negotiations going on, agreements being made, just in time to pay for the funerals of the plaintiffs, just in time for the new millennium to start heating up its own new slaughters. Right now Jewish spokespersons are pushing here, there and everywhere for some awards, some financial solutions, for some sense of order. It would make us feel better if the victims were repaid. If societies, Danish, Dutch, Belgian, French, Swiss as well as German, would reach into their coffers and acknowledge that they had lifted, pilfered, looted, taken and used what was not theirs in ways so unconscionable as to be shameful, shameful in God’s eyes, shameful ever after.

I hope the compensation comes to those who deserve it, but there is a problem with all this money talk. It confuses the issue. I don’t care what the criminals think of us. Although of course our enemies will make the claim, “Those Jews are always looking for a financial advantage.” They will say ugly things, call us Shylock. Let them, we can hardly be accused of money lust when it is they who took the goods, the deeds, the funds from those who were forced to flee or forced into labor. It is not the Jews of Europe who asked survivors to present unprovable proofs, or appeal in triplicate to moral consciences that did not exist. That was done by the bankers and the insurance executives who were not soldiers of an evil empire but simply functionaries, accountants for the Einsatztruppen and their descendants.

But I do care that we do not confuse ourselves. No amount of treasure returned could ever replace the dead. No amount of cash could ever wipe clean the moral stain on the Enlightenment’s head. No amount of reparations will repair our broken trust. Institutions like banks and insurance firms and car manufacturers, folks like the grandchildren of those who moved into emptied apartments and houses and wouldn’t return them when the survivors knocked on the door, the entire fiscal and legal apparatus of the supposedly civilized states that looked the other way for the next half century, that smiled and wiped their apparatchik hands and pocketed the change, small and not so small, cannot buy their way out of this one.

But then aside from the anger that will not die (what happened from 1933 to 1945 cannot be erased, evaded or paid for), I’m not convinced we should chase the illusion that law and order will shelter us and in the end justice will be done. It can’t. The law is helpless in the face of total social barbarism. You can’t graft a legal system on a state that is completely without moral order. You need a “right” to define a “wrong,” and in these extreme situations all sense of right and wrong had broken down. You can’t make legal reason work retroactively because to do so is to assume that any of us are truly innocent of reaping the rewards of oppression. This would take us down an icy slope of hypocrisy in which no people are pure down to the bone, and all these hypocrisies would disappear in comparison to each other.

The taking of land and property is not a 20th-century invention. The Blackfoot, the Crow and other Native American tribes make claims all the time, and our courts usually deny them. What will we nice, innocent Americans really do about the plundering of the Native American populations if two centuries later we try to set things straight? What will we do about the wages of the actual slaves on the plantations of the South? How much would that be in year-2000 dollars, with additional charges for emotional damages? What can we do to the Japanese who stole from the wealth of Manchuria, and what can we do to the British for the robbing of India, and to the Belgians for the harvesting of the mines in the Congo? And will Israel be responsible for the suffering of the ancient tribes of the Sinai, and what of the claims of the Palestinian refugees in camps? I know it’s different, but it’s always different when it’s not your bank account that has been gored.

In our sweet way, we want the monsters to pay and the martyred to be elevated or at least recompensed for their suffering. But in history that’s not possible. The strong get away with kicking the weak and carrying off their goods in a sack. What happened to Carthage happened to the Jews of Berlin, and if we insist on fiduciary claims, if we try to enforce property laws (“I have proof I bought that Picasso in 1926, what’s it doing in your museum?”), we will, like flies on a horse, only arouse tails to switch, ears to flick.

It will deter no future sackings of souls or burning of cities to insist that money be given. It is essentially a moral bill we are presenting, and in doing so we are confounding the crime with a sour taste of commerce. Whatever we win from Switzerland, France or the Vatican will be no more than bitter ash falling on our future. If they gave freely, that would be another matter. But they won’t. We will haggle, they will hide. It seems a desecration. Let them sit on their evil pile of gold. Let everyone know what Mr. Chesnoff has reported: what happened where, and at whose hands, and to whose benefit.

Moral Debt Worth More Than Money