Final Indignity

What does a country owe its citizens, or former citizens? It’s a tricky question but one that we think about all the time when do our taxes or sign up for benefits. An easy answer is that nations owe their citizens whatever the law demands. Kindness, consideration, and empathy don’t usually factor into the equation.

This week, the child of a survivor was forced to confront this harsh reality when she received a letter from the German government stating that it had overpaid her mother the sum of 72.55 euros (approximately $82) and was claiming the money back. The mother, who during the Holocaust was able to escape transport to Auschwitz, had been receiving a pension from Germany, and died this year from COVID.

The German government calculated that it had overpaid her because she had died before the end of a three-month disbursement period. In an overly bureaucratic letter, the pension authority informed the survivor’s daughter that it expected her to return the 72.55 euros. She called the German consulate for an explanation but received a brusque reply that she was “stealing money from Germany” so she sent them a check for the apparent overpayment.

In the end, after the publication of an article on the incident in the Forward, the German government reversed course, apologized to the woman and told her the money would be returned to her. While this case might have come to a decent conclusion, it does bring up some thorny issues related to reparations. As I wrote in 2019, Holocaust reparations are a model for the push to make amends for other historical injustices.

While I am broadly supportive of reparations, for example in the case of slavery in America, they are a major challenge to implement. Whenever you get into the details of a plan, you run into hard choices centered on who, what, when, and how. In the case of Germany, the government decided that only survivors would receive compensation, not their decedents. In the case of slavery, how will one’s lineage be traced?

What sum of money should one receive? With the Holocaust there have been different methods used to calculate an amount, either a lump sum or a monthly pension. For slavery, some have argued that reparations could be a way for America to help build African American wealth since so much of the historic capital of the country was generated by enslaved people who never benefited themselves.

Perhaps one of the trickiest issues is that of how the reparations are calculated. Germany uses a complex set of criteria to determine eligibility, but that is likely to lead to bewilderment and disappointment. Rules must set some kind of limit, which leads to a survivor getting a letter from a foreign government who killed her grandparents demanding the return of money they had sent to compensate her mother.

The goal of reparations is to do two things: provide monetary support to victims of injustice who need it and make a statement that a nation takes responsibility for that injustice. These are worthy and lofty goals, but they are difficult to achieve. In the case of the Holocaust survivor, the money she received only made a small dent in her medical expenses, and the final indignity of the letter her daughter received after death did little to make up for the way her former country treated her. As the daughter said, “All I wanted was for the Germans to acknowledge my mother as a human being … All they needed to say is ‘We are sorry for your loss.’”

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