There were many expectations when the Wall came down. Not least among them that Holocaust survivors living in Eastern Europe would finally receive payments from Germany for their suffering. But a decade would pass before that happened.
Germany was preoccupied with unification, and it was nervous about facing claims from newly independent Eastern European states on behalf of the millions of war victims among their citizenry.
Indemnification programs for Holocaust survivors in the West had long since closed, and Germany had no intention of reopening them. Negotiators for the Jewish Claims Conference, which had represented survivors’ interests since 1951, pressed for new benefits. An important agreement was reached that established a new program to pay modest monthly pensions to survivors who had received no previous payments. This would cover many survivors who had eventually left the Soviet Union for Israel or America. But the Germans were adamant that only Holocaust victims living in Western countries would be eligible.
The tens of thousands of survivors in Eastern Europe were still ignored.
We took the issue up with German Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel beginning in 1995. He wanted to help, but as the junior partner in the governing coalition his influence was limited. These decisions were made in the Chancellery, and the Kohl government was not prepared to budge.
There were still further reasons to be angered and outraged.
Indemnification programs to Nazi victims may have ended, but German military disability payments were still available to any soldier who fought for Germany during World War II. This meant that Waffen SS veterans from Eastern Europe were now free to apply. So a former Latvian legionnaire in Riga who may have rounded up Jews and herded them to their graves was eligible for a German pension. But his Jewish neighbor, a survivor of deportations and Auschwitz, received nothing.
In early 1997 a television crew for the ARD show “Panorama” traveled to Latvia and brought this story to German viewers. They thought public reaction would force the government to change its position. I spoke to the producer the morning after the show aired. They received many phone calls after the program appeared, he told me. But most of them came from viewers in the Netherlands. They were Dutch Waffen SS veterans calling, wanting to know how they could apply for the pensions.
I traveled to Bonn soon thereafter and met with Fritz Boell, Helmut Kohl’s Minister of State. We thought that AJC’s network of contacts and quiet diplomacy might persuade the government to reverse its position. But we were unsuccessful. We informed the Chancellery that we would have to make this a public campaign.
On May 7, 1997, AJC ran an advertisement in the New York Times. It presented two photos—one of a Ukrainian Holocaust survivor and another of a Latvian Waffen SS veteran—under the title, “Guess which one receives a war victim’s pension from the German Government.”
We went on to solicit support from the U.S. Congress, and on August 17 a full page ad appeared in the Times with an open letter from 89 U.S. Senators calling on Helmut Kohl to extend support to these Holocaust survivors in Eastern Europe.
Shortly thereafter the German government agreed to reopen negotiations with the Claims Conference and reached an agreement a few months later. In 1999, a decade after the Wall fell, Holocaust survivors in Eastern Europe received their first pension checks from Germany.
Rabbi Andrew Baker is Director of International Jewish Affairs of the American Jewish Committee.