APRIL 11, 2002
The "Greater Good"? For Whom?
-- Deborah A. Green
Ralph Meyerstein's story appeared in a recent edition of the Chicago Tribune ("Holocaust Payouts at a Sluggish Pace," Greg Garland, February 3, 2002). His ordeal began in 1939 when he was 18. Meyerstein had escaped from Germany and was living in England, when his mother wrote to tell him that her and her husband's life insurance policies were in order. He received only one more letter from his parents (long after the fact) stating that they were being "resettled." After the war, Meyerstein learned his parents were sent to Minsk and died in a death camp. When Meyerstein tried to discover the status of his parents' policies with Allianz, the largest insurer in Germany, Allianz explained that they had two policies, but that a fire in postwar Berlin destroyed the paperwork. "He was also told that the polices must have been cashed in or lapsed because his father's name did not appear on a record of policyholders as of December 1941." As Meyerstein eloquently put it, "How can you pay premiums when you've been sent away?" Many relatives of Holocaust victims have experienced pain and frustration similar to Meyerstein's. Part of the problem stems from stonewalling insurance companies that refuse to release lists of the names of the insured. How can those who were mere children when their parents died be expected to know which company held the life insurance policy for their parents? As Meyerstein aptly states, "[The insurance companies] want for all of us to die, and they bury the claims with us."
That sentiment was echoed by my friend, Maria Bloch-Bauer Altmann, in Los Angeles ("Whose Art Is It Anyway?" The Los Angeles Times, Anne Marie O'Conner, December 16, 2001). Maria is the heiress to the Bloch-Bauer fortune -- or what's left of it. Soon after the Nazis came to Austria in March 1938, everything Maria's family owned -- businesses, land, art, even Maria's engagement ring -- was confiscated by the Nazis. Included in the vast art collection was Klimt's famous painting of the Mona Lisa. (That painting was commissioned by Maria's uncle, and is a portrait of her aunt.) Although the family had originally intended to leave this most famous Klimt (and other Klimt paintings) to the National Gallery in Austria, the fact that the paintings were confiscated by the Nazis seven years before Maria's uncle died nullified the agreement from the Bloch-Bauer's perspective. As Maria's uncle is now deceased, she is entitled to every Klimt painting he commissioned. The Austrian government, like Allianz, has been stonewalling, apparently hoping that Maria will die and her case will die with her.
People disagree as to whether and how reparations should be made to Meyerstein, Altmann, and thousands like them. Does justice make sense if it hurts many people who were uninvolved in the perpetration of the unjust act? If all companies that colluded with the Nazis are required to pay further reparations, many American workers could lose their jobs -- thereby endangering the "American greater good." Others believe that only victims should be able to make claims; descendants should not be entitled to restitution or reparations -- evidently, this is the hope of large European insurance companies and several of the governments. As the survivors die out without their claims being resolved, their descendants will be unable to recover anything. Before the 1990s, many countries had no means through which claimants could legally address their claims. As a result, many survivors have already died, and their descendents are barred from making claims on their behalf.
Similarly, some governments have deemed the "sentiment" of restitution to be restitution enough. They believe the "greater good" to be served by a status quo. The Czech Republic passed laws for restitution of art stolen during the Nazi period, and then denied actual restitution by declaring their art objects "national treasures" that cannot be removed or sold outside of the country. The Republic believes it has been fair with Holocaust claimants because the "laws on cultural treasures do not conflict with 'the sense of restitution'" ("Czechs to Keep Art Taken by Nazis," The Chicago Tribune Howard Reich, March 22, 2002).
I have often heard Protestant intellectuals speak of "conscious forgetting," as a means of entering a state of forgiveness. As Jews, we teach our children to "never forget" the Nazi Holocaust to ensure it does not happen again. Further, in Judaism, atonement, repentance, and right action are prerequisites for seeking forgiveness. Until the injustices against them are righted, Meyerstein, Altmann, and others like them should neither be asked to forgive the people responsible for their suffering nor expected to forget that the institutions established to uphold the "good" of the community took and continue to take advantage of them as individuals and members of a minority.
I realized in pondering these issues that I may not believe in the concept of the "greater good" and its possible universalistic and even imperialistic implications. It seems this language becomes a veil that obscures acts of questionable morality -- even downright immorality. By deploying rhetoric that invokes a "greater good," governments and institutions have allowed themselves to comfortably look past even embrace injustices done to individuals and entire ethnic, racial, and religious minorities.
A first step away from this kind of injustice is for the United States and other nations to begin looking at minority religions, ethnicities, and races through lenses that don't privilege forgiveness and the status quo over action and individual justice.
-- Deborah A. Green is a Ph.D. candidate in the history of Judaism at the University of Chicago Divinity School.