OSLO (Dec. 3)
The leader of French Jewry does not like the idea of a high-profile campaign to obtain compensation from the French government for Jewish assets seized during the Holocaust.
In sharp exchanges with leaders of the World Jewish Congress in Oslo last week, Henri Hajdenberg, president of CRIF, the umbrella group of French Jewish secular organizations, said he would oppose “Jews from America or from Israel coming in and speaking to our government” because they do not comprehend the situation in France.
Hajdenberg’s remarks echoed the ongoing controversy in several countries across Europe, where local Jewish communities and the WJC are at odds over who should spearhead restitution efforts and who should receive any payments that are offered.
Delegates from several European countries applauded Hajdenberg when he insisted that indigenous Jews must head the Jewish representation in any negotiation with governments of Western European countries and that they must set the direction of such negotiations.
For their part, both WJC President Edgar Bronfman and Secretary-General Israel Singer insisted that their policy was to coordinate with the local Jewish communities prior to any WJC action on restitution or any other matter.
Yosef Burg, longtime leader of Israel’s National Religious Party, told delegates from small European communities that the intervention of WJC officials from abroad lent much weight to claims and positions put forward by these communities.
But Jewish representatives from Poland quibbled with WJC officials over the right to represent Jewish claims in their country. Singer declared that whatever the letter of the Polish law, it was not acceptable that the 2,000 Jews now living in Poland speak as the representatives of three and a half million Polish Jews who lived in that country before the Holocaust. Most of them died there.
While Hajdenberg of France praised the WJC’s ongoing high-profile campaign against Swiss banks to track looted Jewish assets, he said in an interview that the French Jewish leadership favored a “gradual process” of exposing wartime archives and acquainting the general French public with the truth of what had happened.
French Jews, who have often been more cautious in public campaigns, needed to avoid triggering an anti-Semitic backlash, he said. This was especially true in today’s political climate where extremist right-wing factions were becoming more powerful.
The CRIF president said President Jacques Chirac’s public statement acknowledging for the first time the French nation’s responsibility for what had been done to French Jewry during World War II represented a major moral achievement.
Until that statement over a year ago, the official position was that Vichy France was a historical aberration and therefore its crimes against the Jews were not the responsibility of the French Republic that existed before and after the war years.
Steady Jewish lobbying for it had helped to bring about the president’s statement. Now, Hajdenberg said, it would be difficult for the Jewish community to present French public opinion with monetary demands.
Ultimately, he said, the French Jewish community would like to see the government make a lump-sum payment for the benefit of persons who were hidden as children during the war. Many of them remain today in difficult personal or financial straits.
As to monetary restitution for property illegally taken and never returned, he said: “We will see.”
The property compensation issue made headlines last month when French journalist Brigitte Durant disclosed in a book that apartments in the now- fashionable Marais quarter of Paris, presently put up for sale by the municipality, had been owned or occupied by Jews before the war.
But Hajdenberg, in the interview, said the extent of Jewish ownership of these apartments had been exaggerated, both in the French and Israeli media.
Hajdenberg noted that wealthy, established French Jewish families, such as the Rothschilds, had regained their properties after the war. Those who lost properties tended to be small business owners, many of whom were among the 75,000 French Jews who were deported and never returned.
Sources in the WJC leadership sought to dismiss Hajdenberg as not representative of French Jewry, despite his position as head of the CRIF. They accused him of misplaced apprehensiveness.
But Hajdenberg said he did represent other Jewish leaders.
As for Hajdenberg’s concerns about an anti-Semitic backlash, the WJC maintains that anti-Semitism is caused not by Jews claiming what is theirs — but by anti-Semites.
Anti-Semitism is likely to erupt regardless of what Jews do or do not do in any particular country or situation, the WJC said.
One goal of the WJC has been to encourage European governments to establish their own investigative bodies to track the whereabouts of looted Jewish assets.
Bronfman said repeatedly during the Oslo conference that the example of Norway, which has set up a state commission to examine the loss of Jewish assets during the war, should be emulated by other Western European countries.
After the conference, Singer flew to Stockholm, where, together with leaders of the Swedish Jewish community, he urged the foreign minister to set up a state commission to investigate charges that Jewish deposits and German Reich deposits were held in Swedish banks.
Meanwhile, the Argentine Jewish community is being actively encouraged by President Carlos Menem to file, catalog and selectively publish wartime archives that the government began releasing four years ago, Reuben Beraja, head of the Argentine Jewish umbrella group DAIA, said in an interview.
The first volume of “Testimony,” a collection of this archival material, is due to be published next March.
According to Beraja, it will detail the massive investments by leading Third Reich companies in the Argentine economy. It may also shed light on rumors of Nazi gold having been deposited in Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay.
And it may also trace the Nazi officers who took refuge in Latin America after the war.
Indeed, a 1945 document released this week by the WJC said that recent reports “indicate clearly that Argentina is not only a likely refuge for Nazi criminals but also has been and still is the focal point of Nazi financial and economic activity in this hemisphere.”
The document was recently uncovered in the U.S. National Archives.
Beraja is one of the three Jewish members of the commission appointed by the Swiss Banks and the WJC to oversee the investigation into claims that Swiss banks still hold Jewish assets deposited before and during the war.