News Analysis: Will Swiss agreement overshadow tragic memories

NEW YORK — Will money be the last word on the Holocaust?

In the wake of last week's Swiss banks settlement, Holocaust scholars and survivors are voicing concern that the publicity surrounding such monetary settlements may overshadow the memory and lessons of the Nazi genocide against the Jewish people.

"I'm not sure how much it will be worth if the result is going to be a simple sound bite: `Jews died because of their money,'" Abraham Foxman, a survivor who is the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said after the settlement was announced.

After months of negotiations with attorneys and Jewish groups, Switzerland's two largest commercial banks agreed to pay $1.25 billion over a three-year period to settle all Holocaust-era claims against Swiss interests, except insurance firms.

On the morning after the settlement was reached, national headlines declared: "Jews Hail Money Settlement."

The Swiss banks settlement is the first in what is now expected to be large monetary settlements with European companies and governments regarding claims on bank accounts, unpaid insurance polices and stolen artworks.

"The longer this dragged, the more the press got into it, it became a circus relating to Jews and their money, Jews and their bank accounts, Jews and their gold, Jews and their Stradivariuses, Jews and their Picassos," said Foxman.

Many in the Jewish community who work to preserve the memory of the Holocaust now fear that in some way the tragic legacy of European Jewry will be twisted by squabbles over looted assets.

Part of the concern is that "the real crime, the crime of genocide" will be overshadowed by monetary concerns, said Michael Berenbaum, president of the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation in Los Angeles.

But while Berenbaum and others believe that the concentrated attention paid to the details of negotiations and distributions will take precedence over commemoration and moral lessons for the moment, the former director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum's research institute said he was sure that in the long run, "the ultimate crime will come to the fore."

His confidence stems from the fact that "there are important projects for remembrance that will be here years from now" dedicated to preserving the memory of Holocaust victims.

Stuart Eizenstat, the Clinton administration's point man on Holocaust restitution, stressed that Holocaust education in Europe would be one of the most important outgrowths of the settlement, because it "will outlive the survivors and all of us."

It will lead to more "sensitive and moral" people in the future and "more just policies by countries," Eizenstat, U.S. undersecretary of state for economic affairs, said in a telephone interview following the Swiss agreement.

Establishing Holocaust education in schools is one of the projects the State Department is "most pushing for" as it pursues settlements with America's European allies, he added.

Were it not for the proliferation in recent years of Holocaust institutions and educational programs in the United States, others point out, the current claims would never have received the support of American politicians whose efforts in Congress and at the state and local levels brought pressure upon the Swiss banks to settle.

Rabbi Irving "Yitz" Greenberg, president of the Jewish Life Network, a group that develops continuity programs, called the restitution efforts made by national and local politicians "a moral breakthrough."

"People are now in favor of memory instead of against it," Greenberg said. "It means we really got the message across."

Greenberg, who also is a member of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council, said the Swiss banks settlement "will be a further stimulus" to preserving the memory of the systematic murder of 6 million Jews.

The publicity surrounding the Swiss-Jewish negotiations "is a further reminder of what was done or not done in the Holocaust."

Benjamin Meed, the president of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, said the issue behind the Swiss negotiations and similar restitution talks is not one of money but of morality. "It's a question of how do we complete the 20th century?"

One of this country's leading Holocaust scholars agreed.

"This is not reparation, this is not guilt money," said Deborah Lipstadt, a professor of Holocaust studies at Emory University in Atlanta.

"This is the plain old result of attempted robbery by banks," she said. "We're talking about goods and valuables because the people are gone."

For the Holocaust survivors, most of whom are now in their 80s, who will receive some payment from the settlement, there is another concern: that this episode, more than 50 years after World War II, will be a sorry postscript to their own lives.

Noting the embarrassment engendered by having to publicly fight for money that rightfully belongs to the survivors, Greenberg said, "The fact is the banks are returning a fraction of what they stole" and the settlement money "is going to be used primarily to ease the isolation and poverty of survivors."

Greenberg added: "It is perverse to question either one of those. It should be a matter of pride and responsibility that those steps are being taken. Saying that taking money is cheapening is perverse. It's the least we could do for the survivors and the least the banks could do."