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NEWS ANALYSIS French Jews unlikely to seek payment for seized property

PARIS, Feb. 9 (JTA) — France”s decision to name a body to probe wartime seizures of Jewish-owned property is likely to prompt further revelations about art treasures, apartments and cash that had once belonged to Jews. But it appears that some prominent Jewish leaders are not seeking compensation for property looted by the Nazis and the French wartime Vichy collaborationist regime. They say their sole desire is to have the truth about what was done to the Jews of France brought out in the open. “This is not a question of monetary compensation,”” said Henri Hajdenberg, president of CRIF, France”s umbrella group for secular Jewish organizations. “It”s a moral issue where the truth must be made known so that we can make peace with the past.”” Jean Kahn, president of the Consistoire, which oversees the religious needs of France”s 700,000-strong Jewish community, said he was satisfied that “the French government wanted to shed light on the past.”” He added that he was confident that the state-appointed investigative commission would be conscientious. Although some members of the community may differ, these Jewish leaders believe that, having finally obtained President Jacques Chirac”s landmark 1995 acknowledgment of the French state”s involvement in the Final Solution, accounts have been settled and it would be difficult to demand financial compensation. Commentators say the community”s low-profile stance on the restitution issue stems in part from the fear of feeding a knee-jerk anti-Semitic reaction associating Jews with money, particularly at a time when the French extreme-right is gaining power. Meir Weintrater, editor in chief of the monthly Jewish review Arche, warned of the risk of an anti-Semitic backlash. He also stressed the importance of preventing the examination of the country”s wartime past from generating accusations against the entire French nation of collaborating with the Nazis. “There is a double danger,”” Weintrater said in an interview. “If an accent is put on the financial aspect, there is a danger that people will start saying the Jews want to snatch money away from the French.”” “Above and beyond the financial aspect, there is also the danger of blaming all of France, which risks creating resentment,”” he said. “We must be careful now not to focus on all the `little collaborators,” because there were also tens of thousands of `little Resistants” — French people who did things like let a Jewish family spend the night in their attic,”” he said. On the matter of compensation, however, there is some discord within the Jewish community. Nazi hunter Serge Klarsfeld, head of an organization representing the children of deportees, has asked President Chirac that a $600 monthly pension be granted to the French-born children of Jews from other countries who were deported from France during the war. Many of these children were hidden in France during the war. When Germany paid France some $100 million in 1960 as compensation for Holocaust victims, Paris did not give any of that money to the children of deportees. Although Klarsfeld says the request, made more than a year ago, is an entirely separate issue from the newly launched probe, there is discussion that such a pension could be drawn from any money the investigation unearths. On Jan. 25, Prime Minister Alain Juppe pledged to the leaders of CRIF that the government would form an investigative commission to look into the wartime seizures of Jewish property. Ever since, the shadow of Vichy has particularly hung heavy over a nation that long believed its people were united unanimously against the German occupiers. “This dark part of history was systematically cut out of the picture to preserve the image of a France that fought [the Nazis] and resisted,”” said Hajdenberg. The commission”s most important task will be to explore the contents of some 5,500 as-yet unopened cartons of records from Vichy”s Commissary for Jewish Questions. The records have been gathering dust in the National Archives since the end of the war. These boxes are believed to hold the key to the extent of wartime seizures of Jewish assets and the zeal with which the Vichy administration helped the Nazis loot Jewish property. “There has been a terrible failure to recognize the function of the Commissary for Jewish Questions and the role it played in stripping Jews of their possessions, plunging many into poverty, which made them easy prey for deportation,”” Hajdenberg said. The commission will also look into the origins of a treasure trove of works of art, some of them looted from Jews, that have hung in France”s state museums for 50 years. Hector Feliciano, who first revealed the existence of the looted paintings in his 1995 book “The Lost Museum,”” said the commission”s efficiency would “depend on how much pressure is put on the government.”” The museums “don”t really want to open these files because it means talking about the collaboration,”” he said. Juppe”s office last week announced the appointment of Jean Matteoli, a non-Jewish Resistance fighter and concentration camp survivor, to head the investigation. Matteoli, 74, is president of France”s influential state advisory body, the Economic and Social Council. A spokeswoman for the prime minister said in an interview that the commission would include “four or five people whose job will be to mobilize the various administrations concerned”” to explore the contents of their own archives. The commission members will not conduct the research themselves. Juppe”s pledge of a state probe has also pushed the Caisse des Depots, a holding bank for administrative funds, to try to locate stolen money that was deposited in its coffers both during and after the war. Its search is focusing on some $2.4 million seized from Jews as they entered the Drancy transit camp, and another $20 million in proceeds from the sale of confiscated Jewish property — including furniture, jewels and bonds — that was not claimed after the war. Of the 76,000 Jews deported from France during the war, 67,000 passed through Drancy, where they boarded trains to Auschwitz. Another controversial issue will be the hundreds of apartments Vichy seized in the Paris” Marais district, the capital”s Jewish quarter. Today, Marais is one of Paris”s most fashionable districts, and the apartments, some of which were Jewish-owned, are still in the hands of the municipality. When “Domaine Privee,”” a book by journalist Brigitte Vital-Durand documenting the seizures of Jewish apartments, was released in October, it pushed the Paris municipality to freeze the sale of all apartments acquired after 1940 until their historical ownership could be determined. A research committee is due to present its findings in April, but critics say the work is moving slowly. Many of these “secrets”” of France”s wartime past have indeed been known about for years in exclusive circles, but the political will to discuss and act upon them was lacking. “I think that in most cases, people simply preferred not to open a Pandora”s box,”” said CRIF Vice President Emmanuel Weintraub. “They just figured that the deportees were not coming back, and that now, those things belonged to them. They just erased them from the face of the earth.””