Justice and Financial Accountability
J. Bazyler and William Elperin
Holocaust was not only the greatest murder, but also the
greatest theft in the history of mankind.
It is estimated that Jewish losses (in present value)
exceeded $230 billion dollars. Now that the Swiss banks have
agreed to pay $1.25 billion to Holocaust victims, the largest
settlement of a human rights case in the United States,
attention has turned to obtaining restitution for other
atrocities and economic crimes committed during World War II.
have recently been filed against insurance companies, museums,
and German and Austrian industrial corporations for using slave
labor, including BMW, Volkswagen, Daimler-Benz and Siemens.
Even American car giants Ford and General Motors now
stand accused of profiting from the Holocaust.
harsh criticism has been leveled at Holocaust survivors and
their lawyers for demanding compensation for Holocaust-era
crimes. Prominent members of the Jewish community have expressed
concern that the horror of the Holocaust may be overshadowed by
the new focus on money. Some
worry these claims have created an "industry to be made on
the Holocaust victim," while others predict an anti-Semitic
others believe the dignity of Jews is paramount to any claim for
restitution and are afraid of Jews appearing greedy if they seek
any money. And, of
course, they blame the lawyers, calling them ambulance chasers
us, as children of Holocaust survivors deeply involved in these
issues, to present a contrary point of view.
banks profited handsomely during World War II at the expense of
Holocaust victims. Allowing
the Swiss banks to keep funds deposited with them by European
Jews and proceeds earned from their dealings with the Nazis
amounts to unjust enrichment.
Similarly, the still - uncompensated slave laborers who
kept alive German and Austrian industry during the War should be
paid for their labor by companies who exploited them.
Allowing such companies to escape financial liability for
benefits earned on the backs of the slave laborers is both
immoral and unjust.
charge of greed made against the survivors is absurd when
examined closely. Although
$1.25 billion sounds like a lot of money, it must be measured
against real financial losses
and viewed in perspective: if distributed equally, each living
Holocaust survivor would receive less than $2,500.
Just who is being greedy, the perpetrators, who held onto
funds belonging to others until forced to disgorge it, or the
aging victims who for over 50 years attempted to retrieve what
was rightfully theirs?
can no longer let fear of an anti-Semitic backlash govern their
important lesson from the Holocaust is that failure to stand up
for one’s rights encourages the flames of anti-Semitism.
Jewish Holocaust survivors (and their lawyers) are leading the
battle for compensation not only for themselves, but also for
gypsies, other minorities persecuted by the Nazis and the
non-Jewish Eastern European population forcibly shipped as
slaves to Nazi Germany. German
industry “employed” between 8 to 10 million people as slave
laborers during the War.
to pursue restitution and to hold the wrongdoers accountable
also sends a dangerous message both to existing and future
dictatorships throughout the world.
In contrast, obtaining compensation for survivors of the
Nazi horrors sends a clear and unequivocal signal to despots
that human rights abuses, even economic ones, will not remain
important, obtaining compensation from bankers and
industrialists who profited from human rights abuses warns those
who become business partners with dictatorial regimes that they cannot escape accountability.
The argument by the world’s industrial giants that they
had no choice but to participate with the Nazis in economic
crimes should be rejected on the same basis as the argument by
the ordinary foot soldier that he was merely following orders -
and even more so, since the soldier, in contrast to the
industrialist, does not profit from his acts.
the lawyer-bashing is not justified.
(Neither of us are participating as lawyers, or
otherwise, in these lawsuits.)
We do a disservice to the many lawyers who devoted
countless hours of their time, many pro
bono, to achieve this victory for Holocaust survivors
throughout the world. As
for those lawyers seeking a fee, their fee applications must be
approved by the court, providing a safeguard for excessive and
from the Holocaust lawsuits belong to survivors and only to
justice can never be done, financial accountability must be
survivors, whose average age is 81, are the only ones who can
decide what to do with recovered funds.
It is their decision, and theirs alone, whether to
deposit the check, send it back, rip it up or donate it to
is an honor and a tribute, not a disgrace, to begin the new
century by finally reconciling the financial books for the most
heinous atrocities committed during the 20th century.
J. Bazyler is a professor of international law at Whittier Law
School in Costa Mesa, California, and organizer
of the recent "Nazi Gold and other Assets of the
Holocaust” international conference.
William Elperin is a lawyer in Los Angeles and President of The “1939” Club,
one of the largest and most active Holocaust
survivor organizations in the country.