A story that has been reported in the German press for months reached a turning point this week. German industries managed, most would say finally, to amass their contribution of DEM five billion to the fund that will compensate forced slave labourers under the Nazi terror.
Alongside this, the German press commented further this week on the neglected apology of Polish President Alexander Kwaśniewski for Polish responsibility in the massacre of Jews at Jedwabne in 1941, an issue raised last week in Poland.
Not just internal policy
While the issue of compensation of forced labourers falls squarely under the heading of "internal policy" in the German press, this is clearly an issue that closely affects many in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, among others.
Die Tageszeitung ran an opinion piece on 15 March 2001 under the headline "Compensation for NS Forced Labourers Is about Germany's Image." Other commentaries included Bloss kein Sterbegeld ("No Money for the Dead") in Die Tagesspiegel on 13 March, "The Economy pays for NS Forced Labour" also in Die Tagesspiegel on 14 March and "Polish Forced Labourers Stand in Line for the Last Time" on 15 March in Die Welt.
While German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder expressed relief that the money had finally been collected from German industries, Ulrike Herrmann in Die Tageszeitung expressed the view that the money had been given by the industries for the wrong reason—out of concern for a brand name called Germany. The subtitle says, "They got away cheap," and indeed, the gist of the article is that it took far too long for German industry to collect what is, for large corporations, a relatively small sum of money; furthermore, that in doing so, the reasoning behind this was not contrite, but rather commercial.
The commentary in Der Tagesspiegel by Stephan-Andreas Casdorff takes a different angle. In brief, Casdorff asks questions about the more technical aspects of the compensation within the context of German shame.
The author points out that it was, at least partially, the pressure of an American lawyer, Shirley Kram, who pushed for the last billion marks of compensation money. The money was not fully paid and so she continued to take legal cases against the companies who used slave labour. The agreement, "painstakingly worked out" between German companies and Americans suing for justice, says that once the money has been paid, these specific trials will be dropped, according to Casdorff in Der Tagesspiegel. The Bundestag is then responsible for finding out to whom the money should be paid.
Casdorff ends by essentially saying that time is of the essence; that the adage "justice delayed is justice denied" holds particularly true in this case. He quotes the Green Party legal expert (Grünen-Rechtsexperte) Volker Beck, who says that this fund for the survivors must not become a foundation for future generations. No doubt it is not a coincidence that Casdorff chose the legal expert of the Green Party to express this controversial, and one might add, right-wing view.
The conclusion of the article is that "every month, every day" counts and that if necessary, the compensation should be paid even before legal confirmation, before it is too late for the victims. "This is the price of shame," the author says. In this article, in stark contrast to the former, the author does not focus on the attitude with which the Germans gave the compensation money, but rather on the fact that it has been collected. The author concludes by saying, in no uncertain terms, that the collected money must now be distributed as quickly as possible, even at the expense of the related, technical legal proceedings.
Die Welt took another angle on the story altogether, choosing to report on Poles waiting to receive their compensation as victims of forced labour during the war. Most notably, Polish Foreign Minister Władysław Bartoszewski, a former inmate of Auschwitz, was cited as saying that he was relieved that the DEM five billion had finally been contributed to the fund. He himself, however, will not be applying for the money because "there is no compensation for the time in Auschwitz."
On 15 March, Die Welt also reports on Polish anti-Semitism and the upcoming apology by Polish President Kwaśniewski on the 60th anniversary of the murder of Jews by Poles at Jedwabne. While the President has come out to apologise, the Roman Catholic Church, so closely associated with politics in Poland, has not, the article reports.
The author of the article is Konstanty Gebert, publisher of the weekly magazine Midrasz and columnist for Gazeta Wyborcza. He asks if the Poles are attempting to deny unsavoury aspects of their past and ends with this conclusion: Polish newspapers have, Gebert writes, devoted entire pages to discussion of a new book by Jan Tomasz Gross called Neighbours. Gebert writes that the reaction was not so positive a little over ten years ago when Polish literary critic Jan Blonski questioned the passivity of the Poles with regard to the Holocaust in his own writing.
Emotions run high concerning this particular topic and stereotypes are deeply engrained. Gebert needs to explain in this article, in brackets, a brief excursion from the main thread of the argument: that Hitler did not choose Poland as the site for concentration camps because he thought they would be well received there. This false history still needs explaining 60 years after the war.
Gebert, it should be said, does a good job of touching on many major issues in the precarious realm of Polish-Jewish relations. Where anti-Semitism has risen, he accounts as well for the rise in "anti-anti-Semitism." He writes about Polish illusions of a strong connection between Polish Jews and Communism, he writes of the division in Polish society in which the Polish Jew was looked upon as an outsider. He accounts for Polish suffering during the war, citing that half of the six million Polish dead were ethnically Polish.
Gebert concludes by saying that discussion of the theme is not over and done with, because "even if anti-Semitism in not welcome, it is tolerated." This is true, and it is debatable whether there can ever be a conclusion acceptable to both sides in the debate of Polish-Jewish relations.
This week's reports in the German press can thus be divided into three categories: the collection of German money for compensation, the funnelling of much of this money to victims of forced slave labour in Poland and Polish anti-Semitism as brought to light through recent historical analysis of the murder of Jews by Poles at Jedwabne.
Andrea Mrozek, 19 March 2001
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