French Jews seek reparations

Some 21,000 have demanded compensation for lost family property.

Some 21,000 French Jews have come forward seeking compensation from their government for the property their families lost due to anti-Jewish policies during World War II. But to the government-appointed claim-procession commission currently in Israel seeking deserving heirs, it is the individual stories that are most important, such as that of Maurice. Maurice's father was murdered in a concentration camp. After the war, his mother married a man whose wife and children were also deported from France and killed. Maurice was resentful and found it difficult to accept this "new father," who behaved "aggressively toward him," as he told the commission. He ended up deciding to leave France and move to America. When he contacted the commission to see what compensation he might be able to recover, he gave the names of his mother and father, and his step-father. In addition to giving him the money to which he was entitled average claims paid out are $25,000 the commission was also able to provide him with a wealth of information about all three individuals: things he never knew, like the names of his step-father's children. "For him it had been only his step-father who was there in place of his own father," explained Anne Grynberg, a commission member working in Israel this week."Suddenly, he understood that he was a man who really suffered, and not only in financial terms." He went on to reconcile with his step-father and took his own children on a pilgrimage to Auschwitz in honor of his father and step-father's wife. Grynberg described the work of the commission as not only a financial question."It's really a question of memory and family history. Most people don't know much about their families [lost in the Holocaust], and what the commission finds in the archives is really important to them. The commission primary motive for coming to Israel this week was to find heirs who might not have realized they were eligible during the previous six years of the commission's work. During the week they are here, they are scheduled to examine 81 cases. Of the 21,000 heirs who have come forward so far, 16,000 had their claims processed for a total disbursement of 220 million Euros. Claims are trickling in more slowly now at about 100 per month on average. Still, the descendents of the 76,000 French Jews, of a total population of 300,000 before the war, who were deported to Drancy, are eligible for 800 Euro for the personal possessions they carried on them, which were stolen at the camp. Only 2,000 of those 76,000 prisoners survived. "The French state is now ready to recognize its responsibility," said Grynberg, who is a Sorbonne historian of European Jewry during the Holocaust. She is one of 10 members of the commission, which also includes lawyers and government representatives. One of the latter, Bertrand Dacosta explained that the commission resulted from President Jacques Chirac's breaking from the tradition of past politicians and acknowledging the French government's role in collaborating with the Nazis. "After Chirac was elected in 1995, one of his first acts was to recognize the responsibility of the French state in these persecutions and spoliations," he said.