After much prodding from the State of Israel and various Jewish organizations, Chancellor Konrad Adenaur of West Germany offered partial reparation for Jewish losses in the Holocaust in September 1951.
“Unspeakable crimes have been committed in the name of the German people calling for moral and material indemnity, both with regard to the individual harm done to Jews and to the Jewish property for which no legitimate individual claimants still exist,” he said. “…. The Federal government is prepared, jointly with representatives of Jewry and the State of Israel, which has admitted so many stateless Jewish fugitives, to bring about a solution of the material indemnity problem, thus easing the way to the spiritual settlement of infinite suffering.”
As hinted in his speech, he negotiated on two tracks. One was with the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, an amalgamation of 23 major Jewish national and international organizations, the other with Israeli Foreign Minister Moshe Sharrett on behalf of the State of Israel.
Israel was demanding compensation for absorbing and settling 500,000 Holocaust survivors at the cost of about $3,000 a person ($26,862 in modern currency), claiming that Germany owed the fledgling state 1.5 billion dollars ($13,400,000,000 in today’s dollars). This did not include six billion dollars of Jewish property pillaged by the Nazis during the course of the war.
Israel could certainly use the money. Its economy was a shambles. The 1948 war had exhausted Israel’s foreign currency, credit was scarce, and within its first three years, the state absorbed 700,000 new immigrants, doubling its 665,000 population. Even food was scarce. A month before Israel’s independence, a UN commission had warned, “A serious food shortage with the threat of starvation is imminent in Israel.” Reparations from Germany would be welcome shot in the arm.
The pending deal provoked one of the worst controversies Israel ever witnessed. David Ben Gurion and his camp stressed the pragmatic side, claiming the money was essential to put Israel on its feet. Menachem Begin and his followers argued that accepting reparation from Germany was tantamount to forgiving its crimes. Emotions reached the boiling point on January 7, 1952 as the Knesset debated whether to accept the money.. In anticipation of violence, police set up roadblocks and barbed wire fences around the Knesset to prevent rioters bursting into the building and waited behind their fortifications with sticks and tear gas.
Fleets of busses brought in about 15,000 protesters from all over the country. They gathered at Zion Square close to the old Knesset building on King George Street and listened to Begin denounce Ben Gurion in one of the most provocative speeches of Israel’s history. He announced that he and his followers would rather die than take a penny from Germany.
“And so I say to Mr. Ben Gurion, there will be no negotiations with Germany, for this we are all ready to lay down our lives, yehoreg ubal ya’avor,” he shouted. “There is no sacrifice we will not undergo to foil a plot to this. According to news we just received, Mr. Ben-Gurion has prepared police officers with German produced grenades and tear gas, the same gas that suffocated our fathers… I know you are courageous. Do not pity our wives and small children – we will bear it. We will even go to concentration camps, to torture chambers, for we are no better than those who went to the gallows… When you fired at me with artillery [at the Altelena] I gave the command: No [do not fire back]! Today, I give the command: Yes! True, you will show us no mercy, but this time we will have no mercy on you. This will be a war of life or death.”
Begin then set off for the Knesset with thousands following him. Bedlam broke loose. Tear gas and police could not hold back the crowd and dozens of wounded police officers stumbled to the Knesset cafeteria for first aid.
Inside the Knesset building, Begin strode up to the speaker’s podium, and began speaking. As his speech got underway, a hail of stones smashed the street windows, filling the hall with glass shards. MKs moved to the safer side of the hall as Begin continued his plea to desist from the reparations plan. After the speech degenerated into a shouting match between Begin and Ben Gurion, each accusing the other of being a fascist and a hooligan, the Knesset chairman cut short the proceedings and adjourned the session. IDF units subdued the raging crowd, 140 demonstrators were arrested, and hundreds of wounded taken to hospitals.
In the midst of the public controversy, MK Shlomo Lorincz of Agudas Yisroel asked the Chazon Ish how the party should vote.
“Will the outcome depend on Agudas Yisroel’s vote or will there be a majority in any case?” asked the Chazon Ish.
“Our vote won’t make a difference,” Lorincz replied.
“In that case,” said the Chazon Ish, “abstain and don’t vote.”
Lorincz was curious to know what the Chazon Ish would have ruled in the event the vote of Agudas Yisroel made a difference.
“Do you think that when you come to me with a question I pull the answer out of my sleeve?” said the Chazon Ish in reply to this question. “Not so! When a question comes to me I thoroughlyexamine andclarify the matter, and only then, when everything is clear to me do I give an answer. If your vote made a difference, I would have needed to go into the depth of the sugyah and clarify it from beginning to end. Since your vote does not make a difference, I am involved with other matters and do not have time to get involved with this.”
In the U.S.A.,Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky announced at a New York gathering that “the majority opinion sides with the opinion of Rav Aharon Kotler who opposed all negotiations with Germany even if large sums of reparations can be obtained.”
“One can file suit against a killer and a thief and receive damages from him, but one cannot conduct negotiations with killers and receive something that rewards horrific acts,” he explained. “Rav Kotler is concerned that the Government of Israel wants to put an end to Germany’s culpability and to establish friendly relations between the two peoples. Chareidi Jewry should not participate in this endeavor.”
On January 9, 1952, with a majority of 61 against 50, the Knesset voted for reparations. A deal was signed between Adenauer and Moshe Sharrett on September 10, 1952.
The decision did not end the resistance. In October 1952, papers reported the attempt of Dov Shilansky, a 26-six-year-old survivor of the Holocaust and Altelena, and a member of Begin’s Cheriut party, to bomb Israel’s Foreign Ministry.
“Dov Shilansky, the man arrested outside the Foreign Office here Sunday with a primed bomb in his possession, was today arraigned in Magistrate’s Court on charges of carrying explosives,” the paper wrote. “He was remanded to jail for two weeks pending completion of the police investigation into the case. The police today continued searching for a definite link between Shilansky and the new underground organization, Sicricim, formed after the Herut demonstration against the German reparations negotiations early last year.”
Shilansky was sentenced to 21 months in prison for his attempted violence. In addition to his part in the affair, a small, violent political group called Kingdom of Israel (Malchut Yisrael) sent parcel bombs to Adenauer and others, one of them killing a sapper.
Ratifying the deal in the German parliament was also a contentious process. According to a 1951 survey, 5 percent of West Germans admitted feeling guilty about the Jews and 29 percent admitted that Germany owed some restitution. But about 40 percent of the populace thought only people “who really committed something” were responsible, while 21 percent thought “the Jews themselves were partly responsible for what happened to them during the Third Reich.” In total, a scant 34 percent believed that Germany owed the Jews a cent.
Despite this, a small majority of the parliament agreed to reparations on March 18, 1953, and over the next fourteen years, Germany paid Israel the sum of 3 billion marks which played an important role in the new country’s economy, comprising as high as 87.5% of its income in 1956.
Agudas Yisroel had to fight to get even less than its share part of the reparations.
“Agudas Yisroel’s position on the issue of reparations is well known. But it is also a well-known fact that chareidi Jewry, organized and represented by Agudas Yisroel in thousands of institutions, suffered the greatest losses and now that reparations for compensation and rehabilitation of the destruction are being distributed, the Jewish Agency has neglected to support Agudas Yisroel institutions and members,” complained an Agudas Yisroel resolution. “… If our demands are not met, we will take whatever steps necessary to save as much as possible for chareidi Jewry.” (M’Katowitz ad Hei BIiyar)
German restitution of Jewish property was the first time a government ever paid compensation for the crimes of a previous government. This is reflected in a ruling of Rav Eliezer Waldenberg who had been asked whether Holocaust survivors were required to give ma’aser from compensation they received for their stolen property (Tzitz Eliezer 6:27). In reply, he ruled that the restitution was not replacement for the plundered property, for persecuted Jews had long given up hope of reclaiming their property. Rather, it subject to the obligation of ma’aser as a newly received gift.
(Elazar Shulsinger, Al Mishkenos Haro’im, Bnei Brak, 5788; Rav Tzvi Weinman, Mikatowitz ad Hei Be’iyar, Vatikin, 1995; Yanon Roichman, Hayom shebo Nichbeshah Haknesset, Ynet, 2006;Wikipedia)