How Do You Repair a Broken Community?

Thoughts on reparations for Jews in the Netherlands from the next generation…

Imagine finding out you are Jewish as you are being abducted from your home to be sent to a death camp? That was the story for many Dutch Jews who didn’t have any connection to Jewishness beyond what was coded on a punch card stored at the municipality.

"So many people in Rotterdam didn't know they were Jewish, but were registered as Jews. The municipality made it easy for the Nazis to round up Jews." In the background is a pre-war photo of Rotterdam

The story behind that punch card can be found in the book IBM and the Holocaust[1], which describes the systematic process of registering all Jews in the Netherlands using the parameters of the Nazi race laws. The Dutch civil servant in charge of the process was focused on solving the problem of classifying Dutch folks by race and seems not to have considered the implications. His motto was: “To record is to serve.” And woo boy, did he ever record. He used Hollerith (IBM) punch cards to make sorting and finding Jews an easy process for those eager to obey the new rule of law: seizure, abduction, and murder.

In our fifth discussion session for the Jewish Manifesto, we talked about the impact of reparations on the Dutch Jewish community. Our initial focus was the payout to Dutch survivors of the Holocaust and one of their children by the Dutch National Train Service (NS). For many of those participants with families that received those funds (a few thousand euros), the money only seemed to aggravate existing rifts and re-open traumas. Those who needed the money didn’t always get it. Those who didn’t need the money as much were quite capable of jumping through the bureaucratic hoops to claim it.

Here’s what one participant said:

“It’s almost as if the reparations were free marketing for the Dutch government. ‘See – look how kind we are. Even though we were also victims of the Nazis, we still give survivors of the camps money.’ It allows the Dutch government to look good in the eyes of society.”

No surprise: reparations are complicated

Are reparations hush money? Yes, an apology needs to be more than words, participants in the discussion agreed. But what are reparations really? How do you repair entire families wiped out? How do you repair the ongoing trauma of returning to a home that had been stolen both as a refuge an actual place? How do you repair that loss?

For the grandchildren of survivors, the issue isn’t money. It’s cultural change. Take Jews seriously, one participant demanded.

“I want to see cultural change – taking Jews seriously.”

More than one participant in our discussions for the Jewish Manifesto discussed how reparations aggravated family relations and re-awakened trauma. Many individuals and families were never able to heal or recover from the experience of the Shoah.

"Anytime there are discussions of reparations or memorials like the Stoppelsteinen, it re-opens wounds in my family." Underneath the text is an image of stoppelsteinen

On top of that, the bureaucracy of reparations has been a hindrance to many and reawakened past trauma for many others. It’s not as though survivors got a certificate for surviving genocide, and the idea of registering their Jewishness once again in order to get reparations was terrifying. Who wanted yet another paper trail proving Jewishness? Not the survivors who remained in the Netherlands, within reach of the same apparatus that had collaborated so politely with the Nazis in the first place. As one participant told us:

“I still feel the damage and distrust towards institutions.”

As does their grandmother, who receives a pension from the German government as part of reparations. “I can still hear her screaming in fury from when the Dutch government decided to tax the reparations.”

The real enemy?

I often feel that the Dutch have been more annoyed that Germany invaded them than anything else.”

Image of the Grim Reaper with the text: "Denial and justification are part of Dutch society. "

Many participants in The Jewish Manifesto discussions come from families that were secular before the war. Some had more ties to communism and socialism than to Talmud and Torah. These ties led to further ostracization after the war as the west united to take on its next enemy: the “red menace”, communism. One participant told of family members who fought against fascism in the Spanish Civil War and then were deported to the camps.

“My uncle lost his arm and his Dutch citizenship for taking part in the Spanish Civil War. Yet the Dutch who went to fight with the Nazis had their citizenship returned before those who fought fascism. This tells you a lot about Dutch society.”

Nu, and?

A question we asked together was: Who gets to ask the question of how we make reparations that make a difference and who gets to answer it?

The focus on stolen funds, assets, art, and insurance policies erases the plight of poor Jews, who were disproportionately victims of Nazi violence. Most didn’t have assets to steal. Many returned to societies that punished them for having the gall to survive. As one participant asked:

“How do you repair a society that saw returning Jews as a problem, rather than welcoming them?”

This remains a question. It hasn’t gone away. And the answer isn’t simple. It could be trauma therapy for all those connected to the Shoah. It could be tax forgiveness. It could be cultural funding and creating spaces for religious, cultural, and political expression.

It could be transforming society by asking another set of questions:

How do we stop committing atrocities, altogether? How do we stop marginalizing people and making them vulnerable?

The last word belongs to Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin who did not survive the Shoah. This is from an essay he wrote 1n 1940:

The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the “state of emergency” in which we live is not the exception but the rule. We must attain to a conception of history that accords with this insight. Then we will clearly see that it is our task to bring about a real state of emergency, and this will improve our position in the struggle against fascism. One reason fascism has a chance is that, in the name of progress, its opponents treat it as a historical norm.[2]

[1] Black, E. (2001). France and Holland. In IBM and the Holocaust (pp. 303–311). essay, Crown Publishers.

[2] Benjamin, W. (2006). In H. Eiland & M. W. Jennings (Eds.), Selected writings (pp. 389–400). essay, Belknap Press of Harvard Univ. Press.

P.S. At the Deviant Yeshiva, we’ll be discussing Walter Benjamin’s essay On the Concept of History. Find out more here