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Back in 1998, while the rest of America was transfixed by the scandal involving President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, journalist Richard Wolffe was covering another, weightier saga that attracted far less media attention: the effort to compensate victims of the Holocaust. Wolffe—a correspondent then newly assigned to the Financial Times’ Washington bureau—considered it a fascinating story, both for its human dimension and its economic ramifications.
“In 1998, it was just about Swiss banks,” says Wolffe, 33, referring to the effort by the heirs of Holocaust victims to claim long-lost Swiss-bank deposits they said were rightfully theirs. “I thought that was a pretty amazing story, but before long, the story of Holocaust compensation had shifted to four other countries and began to involve billions of dollars.
“Just by itself, the case of slave labor in Germany wound up with a payout of $5 billion,” continues Wolffe, who grew up in a Jewish family in Birmingham, England. Other points of contention were unpaid insurance policies and looted art: “The newspapers here in the U.S. covered the Swiss scandal, but then, for the most part, they dropped it. I couldn’t for the life of me understand why.”
Determined to tell that story to an American audience, Wolffe and his Financial Times colleague John Authers wrote The Victim’s Fortune: Inside the Epic Battle Over the Debts of the Holocaust. The book’s narrative spans from 1995, when leaders of the World Jewish Congress first approached Swiss banking officials regarding their suspicions about dormant accounts, to 2001, when some of those formerly enslaved by the Nazis began receiving compensation checks from European governments.
The authors wrote most of the book last year, following a delay that Wolffe says provided important emotional distance. “In the Holocaust, you know who was evil and who was good,” he says. “But when it comes to compensation, it’s anything but black-and-white. There were victims who didn’t want money; there were some companies who were trying to do right but were getting screwed; and there were some Americans in it for their own profit. Writing articles for a daily newspaper makes it very hard to get across these moral complexities.”
Wolffe harbors no illusions about the compensation process. For former Nazi slaves, for instance, the absence of money would have made an apology “meaningless,” Wolffe says—yet the presence of money ended up turning negotiations into something close to a business deal rather than a moral accounting. Moreover, the individual payouts from even the most massive government compensation funds wound up being small, because so many recipients are still alive to claim their share. Former slave laborers typically received amounts in the low thousands—once they managed to wrest the money from the compensation bureaucracies set up by the negotiations between governments and the victims’ attorneys. “Not one survivor I spoke to found the process satisfying,” he says. “People said, ‘How could this ever be enough?’”
Even so, Wolffe says, reviewing the historical record proved beneficial, because it raised public awareness about dark episodes in world history. Despite nagging concerns about the process’s imperfections, Wolffe says that this educational achievement argues in favor of extending the model to other historical events; he cites the efforts now under way to hold American corporations liable for antebellum slavery. (Older companies or their merged successors are at continuing legal risk from lawsuits that target profits made during the era when slavery was legal.)
“The template can be used in any number of ways,” he says. “It’s only a matter of time before a Palestinian-American uses the same tactics to sue an Israeli bank for mortgaging a property that was once owned by a Palestinian.” —Louis Jacobson