How to Accept German Reparations, by Susan Slyomovics
How to Accept German Reparations, by Susan Slyomovics. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014. 384 pages, 18 illustrations. $69.95 cloth, $24.95 paper and e-book.
This elegant, idiosyncratic, and very personal book deserves more than the space accorded to it here. It spans the ordeals of the author’s mother and grandmother in Holocaust Europe and their approaches to the offer of reparations from post-Nazi Germany. At the same time, it is a treatise on massive philosophical questions such as guilt, shame, money, and archives, to mention but a few.
In the first five chapters of the book, Susan Slyomovics recaps in a powerful and painful way her maternal family’s experience in the Holocaust. We are taken on a winding road that moves from the present to the past and back, through philosophical ponderings on each of the themes that inform the complex question: Was compensation for Jewish survivors of the Holocaust “blood money”? Her mother thought it was; her grandmother, on the other hand, fought hard to receive it. When her grandmother died, Slyomovics’s mother reluctantly took over the struggle. In material terms, the payments were pathetic, but from a moral perspective, it acquainted Slyomovics with untold chapters of these women’s trials and tribulations in the killing fields of Holocaust Europe. The last two chapters address reparations claims of Algerian Jews and conclude by connecting it all to the potential reparations claims of the Palestinians.
This book requires patience and concentration, but it is worth the effort. The meandering tale and moral debate are written elegantly and sensitively, and by the time we reach the last two chapters we have a full narrative that ends in modern-day Canada and Israel. The last chapter reveals the author’s own position on the question of reparations. Siding with her grandmother, her main motive is not to relate her family’s story, but a wish to prompt demands by the Palestinians, Algerians, and the victims of U.S. military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq. Slyomovics depicts Algerians Jews and the Palestinians as victims of settler colonialism who should have no scruples about demanding reparations.
There are, however, some issues with the basic premise of the book as it is articulated in the last two chapters. The author’s personal story leads her to recommend reparations for the Palestinians. This, for me, is an ahistorical approach. It avoids discussing the historical context of the Jewish demand for reparations. The very specific circumstances, if mentioned and engaged with, would have necessitated a far more cautious approach to the whole question of blood money, both in the case of the author’s family and that of the Palestinians. The very idea that the Jewish survivors deserve compensation was from the very beginning a Zionist project. In fact, Slyomovics’s family could enroll in such a program because of Israel’s persistent demand for German reparations.
The demand had already been articulated by Haaretz in 1943 and presented to the Zionist leadership by Siegfried Moses, a top Zionist economist. Despite the attempt of non-Zionist groups from 1945 onward to pursue their own demands, West Germany regarded the Zionist organizations as the only representatives of the individual and collective Jewish demands for reparations. The whole project was finalized in 1949 when the Israeli ambassador to the Benelux countries (Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg), Michael Amir, convinced his government that due to the incredible economic recovery of Western Germany, the time was ripe for demanding reparations. While the agreement signed in 1952 considered Jews forced into slave-labor camps during the Holocaust as eligible for compensation, Israel excluded the North African Jews who were such victims and whose struggle is brilliantly described in the sixth chapter of this book. The government did not offer to also include the Jewish survivors who belonged to the right-wing Zionist movement, although, they, like the author’s mother, vehemently opposed the idea of “blood money,” individually or collectively. The Israeli demand was followed by other non-Zionist pleas and applications, but the decisive, indeed crucial, role of Zionism and Israel in this blood money cannot be ignored, even if it does not of course invalidate a demand for reparations.
The book sensitively leads to the last point: the author’s recommendation for Palestinian refugees to demand reparations (which in the book are all about money, but in international law are also about repatriation). The Palestinian demand, unlike that of the national or international organizations speaking on their behalf, is less about material compensation and much more about the right of return (very different from the basic Jewish quest for reparation). The difference between reparation and repatriation is that although the two are not mutually exclusive, the former is poor compensation for the latter. Reparation can only work for the Palestinians if repatriation is in the cards.
The absence of the historical context, which I think is crucial, does not, however, undermine the brilliant achievement of this remarkable book, which is a tribute to the author’s scholarly acumen and humanity.
Ilan Pappé is professor of history and director of the European Centre for Palestine Studies at the University of Exeter and the author of numerous books, including The Idea of Israel: A History of Power and Knowledge (London: Verso, 2014) and A History of Modern Palestine: One Land, Two Peoples, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).