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French Jews Argue Education More Important Than Restitution

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Leaders of the French Jewish community have asked the World Jewish Congress for moderation as it pursues Holocaust restitution in France.

Educating the French people about their wartime past takes priority over monetary reparations, the community’s president said during an Oct. 28 meeting in New York.

“We know you want to help us,” said Henri Hajdenberg. “We thank you for your help and your support, but you have to understand–it’s a French problem.”

The appeal comes as the WJC prepares to negotiate payment of Holocaust-era claims with 15 countries, including France, on behalf of Jewish victims and their heirs.

Some critics have maintained that the WJC was too strong-handed in its efforts to wrest a settlement from Swiss banks and that this posture contributed to an anti-Semitic backlash in that country.

Others have defended the WJC, saying the recent $1.25 billion Swiss settlement would never have been reached without the group’s persistent pressure.

The call for moderation from French Jewish leaders reflects fears that too aggressive an approach in their country would only fuel the right wing, which has attracted 15 to 20 percent of the French vote in recent elections.

Noted Nazi hunter Serge Klarsfeld, a member of the French delegation meeting with the WJC here, also cited the “deep roots of anti-Semitism in France,” punctuated by the Dreyfus Affair of 100 years ago and the Vichy government of World War II.

“We have to deal with that complex situation,” said Klarsfeld, who is one of four Jews sitting on a nine-member, French government commission that will inventory assets looted from Jews living in France during the war.

The commission is expected to present a final report of its findings in December 1999.

The French Jewish community’s objective concerning material restitution, Hajdenberg said, is threefold:

to inventory bank accounts, money and possessions taken from Jews deported from France;

to ensure that heirs of foreign Jews living in France who were deported receive restitution; and

to make sure that stolen artworks are returned to their rightful Jewish owners or their survivors.

An international meeting to discuss the return of artworks stolen during the war is scheduled to take place in several weeks in Washington.

Elan Steinberg, the WJC’s executive director, was pleased by Hajdenberg’s desire to work together when dealing with French authorities.

“Counter to French tradition,” Steinberg said, the French Jewish community “is taking on their government, and they want to do it in coordination with us. They want to assure us that they are willing to take on the burden.”

He added, “This is exactly the kind of relationship we sought to establish.”

Hajdenberg stressed that the community’s overarching goal is to encourage historical accuracy and honest dialogue concerning French collaboration and deportations.

“We do not want the question of money to come first so that the French will think that the only purpose of our fight is to get money,” he said.

“The ideology of French society is more important.”

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