In recognition of Yom HaShoah, Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day, which falls this year on May 1 and 2, President Trump designated April 28 through May 5 as Holocaust Remembrance Week. During these seven days, Trump asked Americans to take part “with appropriate study, prayers and commemoration…to honor the memory of the victims of the Holocaust and Nazi persecution by remembering the lessons of this atrocity so that it is never repeated,” the Jerusalem Post reported.
Devoting ourselves to the recollection of the 6 million Jewish and 5 million non-Jewish victims of the Holocaust is imperative, as America’s communal memory of the atrocities is waning, according to a 2018 study conducted by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany.
Today, even new discoveries about the evils of the Holocaust are tainted by our failing understanding of the past. In late March, the Reimann family, owners of JAB Holdings, a company with controlling stake in Krispy Kreme, Panera Bread, and Pret a Manger, as well as major stakes in dozens of other high-profile companies, announced that historical research the family paid for had uncovered the Holocaust-era misdeeds of former owner Albert Reimann and his son, Albert Reimann Jr.
Both men, it was discovered, were Nazi Party members as early as 1931, and donated funds to Hitler’s paramilitary force, the Schutzstaffel (SS). Additionally, during the war, the Reimanns’ company employed 175 Russian and French forced laborers. Company members, but not the Reimanns, were alleged to have abused these forced laborers both sexually and physically.
To rectify this past, the Reimann family, whose wealth is estimated at around $37 billion, has determined that it will donate approximately $11.2 million to “an organization that helps former slave laborers,” as reported by the Financial Times. Expressing “shock” at the developments, Reimann family spokesman Peter Harf stated, “the two businessmen committed crimes — actually they belonged in prison.”
The Reimanns’s actions were not unique. During the Second World War, businessmen commonly engaged in the repugnant practice of acquiring confiscated Jewish companies from the Nazis, and sought to maintain profitability by taking advantage of available forced labor, as explained by S. Jonathan Wiesen, associate professor of Modern European History, in an article published in 2000 by the Anti-Defamation League.
Although their behavior cannot be minimized or excused, the Reimanns’ actions must not be considered alone. Only when observed in aggregate can one understand the scope of the egregious and commonplace moral transgressions that occurred under the Third Reich.
Consider the company Topf and Söhne. A manufacturer of stoves since 1885, the company received a contract to create the initial cremation ovens for the concentration camps at Buchenwald, Dachau, and Flossenbürg in 1939. During the years that followed, the company took great pride in perfecting cremation ovens, making the painstaking changes that eventually resulted in ovens that, according to German newspaper der Spiegel, could burn up to 8,000 corpses in one day.
German auto manufacturer BMW found in a 2007 historical study that 80 forced laborers died each month in its wartime factories. Ilse Koch, the overseer at the Buchenwald concentration camp, is alleged to have murdered specifically chosen tattooed concentration camp inmates, according to the Jewish Virtual Library. Koch had her victims’ skin tanned, and “fashioned into lampshades and other ornamental household articles,” a witness testified at the post-war Nuremberg Trials.
Harf’s statement that the Reimanns were criminals implies they were aberrant outliers in their society. This neglects the most terrifying truth about the Holocaust: that it took place with the consent and often enthusiastic participation of normal people.
Those who study the history of the Nazi genocide eventually come to realize that, given similar circumstances, there is no telling who among us might become monstrous. With that terrible concern heavy on our minds, we continue to cry out for more Holocaust education.
Acknowledging Guilt and Making Holocaust Reparations
The administration building where Topf and Söhne employees once calculated improvements for destroying the evidence of Nazi genocide was converted into a memorial in 2011.
Karen Bartlett, author of a book about Topf and Söhne published in 2018, reminded the Times of Israel that the company was not alone. “Siemens built the electrical infrastructure for the camps, and Bosch installed the plumbing and water. Kori….built crematoriums,” she said. “You can see the building where the company existed which made the Zyklon B gas [used to kill large groups of victims in specialized chambers] in Hamburg, but there is no memorial there.”
Too many Holocaust participants have failed to answer for their wrongs. Over the years, however, a number of companies, including Hugo Boss, Daimler-Benz, Siemens, Volkswagen, Krupp, and IG Farben, have sought to make reparations to forced laborers they employed during the war. Wiesen describes many companies as only providing “meager payments for some Jewish victims,” and “portray[ing] their grudging recompense as a gesture of good will.”
In 2000, BMW was one of around 6,500 companies that provided reparations in partnership with the German government. The Erinnerung, Verantwortung, Zukunft (Remembrance, Responsibility, and Future) foundation provided payments for forced laborers, with those who labored in concentration camps or ghettos receiving €7,670, and those who were forced to work after being deported from their home countries receiving up to €2,560. Though those payments were distributed by 2006, the foundation continues to fund projects that support historical research, and advocate for human rights and Nazi victims.
Not all who paid restitution are business owners, and reparations are not made solely to those who were forced into war-era labor. The French government, in February 2019, made final payments of $400,000 to the 49 survivors it transported via French trains to Nazi death camps during the war, NPR reported. Relatives and spouses of survivors also received smaller payments from the $60 million settlement reached in 2014.
The West German government, and later the German government, has been doling out reparations to its victims since 1952. Over the years, the government has relaxed eligibility restrictions to ensure that more survivors can receive reparation, notably only expanding eligibility to children survivors in 2018, according to the Times of Israel.
In 2012, the New York Times asked lead negotiator for German reparations, Werner Gatzer, whether 60 years of payments to victims was enough. He indicated it was not. “We will have done enough when no more survivors remain. As long as they live,” he explained, “we will uphold our responsibility.”
Does responsibility truly end when no Holocaust survivors remain? If we struggle to recollect the actions of the past while the survivors live among us, how could we suppose their absence will improve our memory? Governments and companies who have provided reparations must recognize that they have an eternal duty to promote knowledge of the horrors of the Holocaust.
The Plight of Aging Holocaust Survivors
There was a process by which those who endured Nazi persecution during the Second World War became, in the eyes of the Germans, less than human. They were stripped of their dignity and civil rights, and even of their names. They lost their ability to practice their professions, and were driven from their family homes. With each relocation, the few possessions they brought to ghettos and concentration camps were slowly stripped away by their captors.
Even those who met their death in a gas chamber became commodities. Hair was removed and sent to German companies. Teeth were examined for gold fillings. If found, these were removed, melted down, and sent to German banks.
In 2009, 47 countries signed the Terezin Declaration, promising that they would compensate Jews for the property theft which occurred during the Holocaust. As of 2016, “many of the 500,000 survivors still alive [were] yet to be compensated,” according to the Guardian. The items for which compensation was due included expensive works of art, as well as “buildings, furniture, jewelry, clothing, books, cash, and other valuables and assets.”
Whether or not the fulfillment of the Terezin Declaration is aggressively pursued, there remain intangible losses, for which no amount of money can compensate: the theft of childhood, education, and training opportunities, and the physical and mental trauma that result from starvation, inhumane treatment, and the conditions of forced labor and cramped, disease-ridden quarters.
Least of all could any degree of recompense atone for the murders of persecuted people, including gypsies, ethnic Slavs, homosexuals, disabled persons, and political and religious dissidents. For Jews whose grandparents, aunts, uncles, parents, siblings, and children were sent callously to their deaths, money will never fill the chasm of despair.
The summation of these traumas has led many Holocaust survivors to struggle financially. In 2014, the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging discovered that 25 percent of the 109,000 to 140,000 Holocaust survivors in the United States “live at or below the poverty line,” compared to 9 percent of non-survivors older than 65. In Israel, the discrepancy is more pronounced, with 60,000 of 186,000 Holocaust survivors living in poverty as of 2018, according to Breaking Israel News.
As explained by several aging Holocaust survivors in the United States who were interviewed by Tablet Magazine, the logistics of reparations can make compensation difficult. In spite of having worked as a forced laborer manufacturing German hand grenades, 80-year-old Katherine Noire has received no restitution, stating she “didn’t even know that other Jewish agencies help you.”
Seventy-five-year-old Irene Hizme, one of the many twins on whom the “Angel of Death” Josef Mengele performed medical experiments in Auschwitz, explained that, because she was a child when the war ended, she could not provide the details necessary to receive compensation. Although many different reparations programs are available, applicants may be turned away based on bureaucratic limitations and requirements. Of the 867 applications for the aforementioned French government reparations, for example, only 386 were approved.
Shifting Reparations in Support of Survivors, Education
As the Reimann family conclude their research and decide where to allocate their $11.2 million donation, their executives ought not to focus on reparations, whose restrictions minimize the eligibility pool, but on aid organizations whose funds provide basic care for the aging population of remaining Holocaust survivors.
Moreover, to recognize the importance of continued Holocaust education, the Reimanns should reserve funds, or provide an annual, smaller donation, to organizations that promote Holocaust learning, and seek to combat the dangerous prejudices that are still present today, and may never truly abate.
In 2018, France experienced a 74 percent increase in anti-Semitic incidents. In Germany, violent attacks against Jews increased by 60 percent in the same year, with recorded anti-Semitic offenses rising 10 percent. Around the world, anti-Semitic attacks increased by 13 percent in 2018, according to Tel Aviv University, which stated most attacks occurred in the United States, France, Britain, and Germany.
On April 25 and 29, the New York Times published two different cartoons displaying the kinds of anti-Semitic tropes that paved the way for the dehumanization and destruction of two-thirds of Europe’s Jewish population. On April 27, exactly six months after a white nationalist shot 11 Jewish congregants at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, another white nationalist shot and killed one Jewish worshiper at Congregation Chabad temple in Poway, California.
President Trump is right: We must remember.
The actions of the Reimanns and other perpetrators of Holocaust crimes were not those of anomalous, evil individuals. To recognize the Holocaust only as an event of the past is to shut one’s eyes to the possibility of such a tragedy unfolding in the present. With each unopposed expression of anti-Semitic hatred, and every deadly attack on Jews, the monstrous spirit that enabled the Holocaust settles further into our modern society.