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May 2004 Journal

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A sorry tale

IMPERFECT JUSTICE: LOOTED ASSETS, SLAVE LABOR, AND THE UNFINISHED BUSINESS OF WORLD WAR II
Stuart E. Eizenstat
New York: Public Affairs, 2004, £22.50

The title of this important book indicates the achievement of its author, who combined a senior post in the United States administration with six years of tireless efforts to bring some restitution to Jewish victims of the Holocaust.

There is, of course, a sense in which there can be no real compensation for the enormity of the crimes committed by the Nazis, abetted by some so-called neutral countries. Nevertheless, Eizenstat's work compelled the countries involved to restore to the Jewish communities property such as synagogues, schools and other buildings which had been confiscated from them. They were also obliged to open frozen bank accounts belonging to the victims of Nazism, to restore some property to its rightful owners, and to pay out a total sum of $8 billion to those who had suffered as slave labourers.

Eizenstat gives a blow-by-blow account of his protracted, often frustrating negotiations. These involved dealing with politicians, bankers, industrialists, American lawyers and members of various Jewish communities, all of whom had their own agenda and, on occasion, favoured tactics to hold up progress.

The Swiss proved the most intractable. Sheltering behind their apparent neutrality, they felt that Eizenstat's pressure to open bank accounts impugned their integrity. When, however, it was revealed that they 'sent truck-loads of gold looted by the Nazis to Spain and Portugal in vehicles bearing the Swiss emblem', the falseness of their claim of neutrality was exposed. Furthermore, Christoph Meili discovered that the bank of which he was an employee was shredding important documents relating to Degussa, a German chemical company which smelted looted Nazi gold with markings disguising their source, and Dagesch, which made Zyklon B, as well as records of real estate seized by the Germans. Armed with this evidence, Eizenstat was able to extract a settlement from the Swiss.

The Germans, by contrast, made no effort to deny their guilt during the Nazi era, but were concerned to define the entitlement of the victims as narrowly as possible. The Austrians, still half-clinging to their myth that Beethoven was an Austrian and Hitler a German, were more defensive. However, a specially appointed negotiator, Maria Schaumeyer, proved helpful in reaching a final settlement for those who had worked as slave labourers for Austrian firms, excluding the victims of Mauthausen, who had already received compensation from the Germans.

This is a sorry tale which has no happy ending. The book is not an easy read because of the lack of selection of its material, but is nonetheless a valuable source book on its subject.
Martha Blend

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