You have been the victim of unimaginable malice. Most of your family has been killed, particularly the old people, the tired people, and the innocent, hopeful, big-eyed children. They’ve been shot or gassed or died of disease caused by cruelty and unaddressed by medicine.
Years later, your tormentors are going to offer you — money?
Money will make up for what you’ve lost?
On the other hand, what else can they give you? Because they can’t restore people to life. Dead is dead.
That is what Gideon Taylor deals with.
Mr. Taylor, an Irish-born, Oxford-credentialed lawyer, has worked in the Jewish nonprofit world, either as a professional or a lay leader, for most of his career. In his late 20s, he worked for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee as the Joint’s man in Ethiopia — a task for which he feared he had been ill prepared, for which his youth, brains, quick wit, and the fearlessness that comes from being not only smart but also young, in fact had readied him. He worked for the Claims Conference too, and now is the chair of operations for the World Jewish Restitution Organization.
Mr. Taylor, who lives in Manhattan, will be the keynote speaker for the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey’s Yom haShoah commemoration at the Fair Lawn Jewish Center. (See box.)
“I want to talk about the intersection of restitution and memory,” he said. “One of the challenges of restitution is that basically it translates something of deep moral significance into financial terms, but that translation is not what is really most important about restitution.”
It’s not that money is not important. “Obviously, funds can do tremendous good in helping Holocaust survivors in need, and in furthering the lessons of the Holocaust through education, but at the end of the day, restitution is less about money,” Mr. Taylor said. “Restitution is more about justice. It’s about history. It’s about understanding what happened, about recognition of what happened, and about acknowledgement of what happened.”
Part of Mr. Taylor’s work with the WJRO is to negotiate settlements. “Many times over the years I have sat in a room with people who ask, ‘How much do you want?’” he said. “Sometimes journalists ask that too. My answer is always that it is not a question of how much. It is a question of what and how.
“When the Swiss banks were asking how much, I answered that we have to understand what happened. Let us have a historical report that will look into the history of what the banks did. Let’s have an audit to uncover the truth.
“What is at the core of Holocaust restitution is telling the truth, understanding the past, and learning from history.”
Institutions often are more willing to pay money in reparations than they are to publish the records that show why they owe those reparations, he said; he remembers a case in federal district court in Brooklyn where even after Swiss banks’ liabilities had been capped at some vast although still insufficient amount, “the banks were resistant to handing over more information, even though they had no more liability.
“That brought home to me that it never was about the money. It was about the narrative.
“At the core of restitution is narrative, transparency, and understanding history.
“Narratives are powerful tools both for countries and for institutions,” he continued. “The narrative for Switzerland is that it was a neutral country. It was a beacon of freedom, like in ‘The Sound of Music.’ You’d run across the mountains to freedom.
“But what came out of the whole struggle for justice with Swiss banks was that Switzerland survived because it was more useful to the Nazis as a banker, as a place where they could handle money, than it would have been as an occupied country. If that hadn’t been true, it would have been occupied immediately.” And the Swiss used the letter J that the Germans stamped in Jews’ passports, to mark them as such, to turn away many Jewish refugees, returning them to die in Germany. “None of this was part of the Swiss narrative,” Mr. Taylor said.
“Some of these national narratives are held as strongly now as they were after the war,” he continued. Take Poland, which saw itself as a victim during World War II, and it continues to do so. “Poland is basically the only country among the former communist bloc that hasn’t done any restitution, and although there also are other parts of that story, in part it’s tied up in a national narrative of Poland being a victim.”
Once again, he said, “the most lasting part of restitution will be telling the story.”
Negotiations with the German government over slave labor involved billions of dollars, “but in many ways the most powerful element of the whole negotiation was the statement of apology from the president of Germany on behalf of German industry.” At first, Mr. Taylor said, its leaders just said that they’d done what the Nazis had demanded of them, but “it became clear that German industry had been a willing partner with the Nazis, across manufacturing, insurance, and banking. They had been party to and involved with and engaging in taking Jewish property during the Holocaust, so having them acknowledge that was of monumental importance.
“That acknowledgment is the lasting legacy.
“The billions of dollars helped thousands of people, but the understanding is forever.”
The money, too, is crucial, he added. “It transformed the lives of Holocaust survivors across Bergen County and around the world. Billions and billions of dollars have gone to help these survivors. Money is never adequate compensation, and to some extent it is symbolic, but these funds can and have made real differences.”
The symbolism includes “a defining moment — the first time when reparations were paid not to a government but to victims. That was monumentally significant in both philosophical import and in financial terms.”
There is a basic incongruity in the idea of taking money in recompense for unrightable wrongs. “It is always a struggle to maintain the core morality, that this is about history, not just about money, and that money doesn’t close the issue,” Mr. Taylor said.
“Money is a measure that society uses, and it is a very imperfect measure.” And of course it is a symbolic measure that is traded for entirely practical, tangible things — food, shelter, medical care. That muddies the issue.
So does history. “In a broad sense, many of these issues were frozen in Eastern Europe because of communism,” Mr. Taylor said. “They were never addressed during the communist era. That’s why there has been a push to address them as countries have become more successful.” And, of course, as survivors age and die, and memories fade and vanish. There are now negotiations over reparations in Serbia, Romania, Hungary, Poland, and the Baltic states. They are complicated. For example, “In Poland, there is a law that provides for Jewish religious property to be returned, so you have to define Jewish religious property. Is a school or a chevra kadisha building religious property? Was a Talmud Torah a religious property? What about a Bundist school?”
Money is symbolic, history is a story, negotiations take time and patience, and somehow all those things come together. Painfully, but really. And with any luck, we can learn from them.
Who: Gideon Taylor of the World Jewish Restitution Organization
What: Will talk about “Holocaust Restitution: The Struggle for Justice”
Where: At the Fair Lawn Jewish Center,
10-10 Norma Avenue
When: Wednesday, May 1, at 6:30 p.m.
Why: It’s the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey’s annual Yom haShoah commemoration. The exhibit “Letters from
the Shoah” will be open starting at 6.
For more information: There’s much more.
To learn about it, go to www.jfnnj.org
Behind every property there is a story. The World Jewish Restitution Organization is
looking for yours.
In April, the WJRO launched a campaign to ask survivors, their descendants, and friends who know their stories to post them on social media — Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram — and tag them #MyPropertyStory or @WJRO Restitution. Videos, photos, drawings, words — all of that is welcome.
The campaign was to culminate on Yom haShoah, when a gallery will be posted, but it’s not too late to add to what will be an ongoing project.
There’s more information on line, at wjro.org.il and on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.