WASHINGTON — Germany’s decision on Monday to provide payments to 80,000 Holocaust survivors living in the former Soviet Union is being described as a “historic breakthrough” by the Claims Conference, the body that represents world Jewry in negotiating restitution for victims of Nazi Germany and their heirs.

“This is the last group of people who have never received any compensation,” said Greg Schneider, the Executive Vice President of the Claims Conference.  “For people who suffered during the time of the Shoah, recognition from Germany is vital. To be able to do that at this stage, 60 years after the first restitution agreement, for 80,000 people, is tremendous.”

This is the last group of people who have never received any compensation

Former US Ambassador to the European Union Stuart Eizenstat, who serves as the Claims Conference’s Special Negotiator, hailed the agreement and praised Germany  for “its willingness, so long after World War II, and in such challenging economic times today, to acknowledge it’s still ongoing historic responsibility.”

The total compensation will come to about $300 million. The Chairman of the Claims Conference said the group has been working for decades to obtain restitution for Holocaust victims who remained in the former Soviet Union.

A measure of justice should be granted based on history, not on present-day geography

“Two sisters may have fled into the eastern USSR together, but the one who today lives in the US can receive a payment while the one who stayed in Ukraine until now could not,” said Claims Conference Chairman Julius Berman. “A measure of justice should be granted based on history, not on present-day geography.”

Coincidentally, news of the agreement broke on the same day that  Israel, the Claims Conference, the German government, and the US Holocaust Memorial museum began a series of public events in Washington, DC to mark the 60th anniversary of the Luxembourg Agreement, the document in which West Germany officially agreed to provide payments to Holocaust survivors.

At the Israeli Embassy in Washington, Deputy Head of Mission Baruch Binah called the 1952 reparations agreement an “unprecedented and unparalleled achievement that allowed Israel to build vital infrastructure and absorb half a million refugees from Nazi Europe.”

Israel’s Consul General in New York, Ido Aharoni, credited the Luxembourg Agreement and the ensuing decades of activity by the Claims Conference for “cultivating Holocaust awareness around the world.”

The Luxembourg Agreement, also known as the Reparations Agreement between Israel and West Germany, was signed by Israeli Prime Minister Moshe Sharett and West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer on September 10, 1952. In it, West Germany agreed to pay Israel for the slave labor and persecution of Jews during the Holocaust and to compensate Jewish victims for property stolen by the Nazis.

Werner Gatzer, A German Finance Ministry official who led the negotiations with the Claims Conference visits the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. A ceremony marked the 60th anniversary of the Luxembourg Agreement. 09 July 2012. (photo credit: Courtesy Marty Katz, www.washingtonphotographer.com)

Werner Gatzer, the German Finance Ministry official who led the negotiations with the Claims Conference visits the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. A ceremony at the museum marked the 60th anniversary of the Luxembourg Agreement. 09 July 2012. (photo credit: Courtesy Marty Katz, www.washingtonphotographer.com)

Over the next decade, West Germany paid three billion marks to the State of Israel as the heir to those victims who had no surviving family. The money was invested in the country’s infrastructure and played an important role in the development of the Jewish state’s modern economy. As a result of negotiations with the Claims Conference over the last 60 years, West Germany has paid more than $60 billion in compensation to approximately 500,000 Holocaust survivors living in 87 countries.

With the passing of six decades, the ferocity of the debate over whether the Jewish State should have accepted compensation from Germany has died down. Veteran Israeli diplomat Reuven Merhav, Chairman of the Claims Conference’s executive committee and former head of the Israeli Foreign Ministry relayed a conversation he had with hawkish former Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Arens – a vehement opponent of the Luxembourg Agreement in the 1950s – in which Arens belatedly acknowledged that modern Germany had changed and was an important ally of Israel.

At the time of the agreement, the most passionate critic of restitution was future Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, who led a rally of 15,000 protestors to the Knesset on January 7, 1952 as the parliament debated the agreement. The demonstration turned violent and, after five hours of rioting, hundreds of arrests were made and about 200 policemen and 140 protestors were injured.

Menachem Begin protesting against the Agreement in March 1952. The sign reads: "Our honor shall not be sold for money; Our blood shall not be atoned by goods. We Shall wipe out the disgrace!".

Menachem Begin protesting against the Agreement in March 1952. The sign reads: “Our honor shall not be sold for money; Our blood shall not be atoned by goods. We Shall wipe out the disgrace!” 25 Feb 1952 (photo credit: Pinn Hans, Israel National Photo Gallery)

In 2006, a former member of the Irgun who was arrested after a failed assassination attempt on Adenauer published a memoir accusing Begin of playing a central role in the plot. Eliezer Sudit wrote that Begin knew of the plans to kill the West German leader and even heard that Begin was willing to sell his gold watch to pay for the operation. On March 27, 1952, Sudit allegedly prepared an explosive device and hid it in a package sent to Adenauer, which killed a German sapper who tried to defuse it.

In Israel, memories of the Nazi genocide were fresh and passions were such in 1952 that Dov Shilansky, a Holocaust survivor and former commander of a Jewish underground movement in Germany and Italy, was caught trying to carry explosives into the Foreign Ministry building in Tel Aviv in an attempt to disrupt Israeli-German negotiations.

Shilansky spent two years in prison, but, like the Jewish State, he eventually moved on. Ultimately, Shilansky entered politics and became Speaker of the Knesset and a candidate for President.

One of Shilansky’s legacies, as it turns out, is a ceremony that has become part of Israel’s annual observance for the six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust. In 1989, he arranged for fellow lawmakers to stand at a podium in the Knesset and read the names of victims. The custom, known as “Every Person Has a Name,” quickly spread to public places all across Israel.

When Shilansky died in 2010, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, “The story of Dov Shilansky’s life is the story of our people.”