Is it possible to have reconciliation from some of the world’s worst injustices?
South Africa ended apartheid with Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings. Georgetown University has acknowledged their financial gain from slavery, and is making reparation plans for the descendants of the slaves they sold. Do these and other efforts ever come close? Is it too late to right a wrong?
My story of reconciliation from state sanctioned injustice stems from the horrors committed by Nazi Germany. My parents were Jews who survived prewar Nazi Germany and the years of World War II in Holland. My mother survived partly by staying in hiding and partly in the Dutch underground; my father in Westerbork Camp.
My parents spoke little to each other about what happened. I grew up knowing that somethings were left unsaid and accepted, but the aftereffects of the War on my family was pervasive. My father, as a consequence of poor health from Westerbork, had his first heart attack when I was 8 and died 5 years later. These years of sickness were difficult and his death left my mother raising two teenagers. In the U.S., my mother worked as a seamstress, as the Nazi’s banned my mother from school at age 14. At 18 I left New York City, without a plan or forethought. I traveled until I ended in Alaska – a place so different that it felt like an escape. I changed my surroundings, married, became a mother and a grandmother. But there are triggers – news reports like those about Georgetown or other discussions of the way we struggle as a society to reconcile past injustices – that cause a visceral pain and remind me that so many of us carry an unreconciled, painful past with us.
The Nazi’s wrecked my family’s livelihoods and lives, and to a lesser degree the wreckage continues. What rightfully was money that belonged to my family, through legal post war agreements, has stayed in the coffers of a Swiss life insurance company. This is wrong, and for me, it continues the turn of a knife in my gut.
After the War my mother repressed memory as she tried to gain a foothold towards making a life. It was not until the 1990’s that my mother began to piece together financial events. In the last 15 years of her life, she began remembering. It angered her that she forgot these events and could not understand why it took so long to remember. My mother blamed herself. Later still, she ruminated that that I too was being consumed by the attempts at reparation and that she should not have involved me. This was another “survivor’s guilt”; that her past was no longer buried, and that it became my present. I am now the age my mother was when I got to know her the best. My mother is gone, but I received the legacy to “never forget.”
My mother’s family was wealthy. They fled Germany late in the Nazi time; going to Holland in May 1938. My grandfather died of natural causes in December 1938. He was an industrialist, who would insure the future for his family. My grandfather had eight significantly large life insurance policies through Basler Lebensversicherung Insurance in Switzerland. In 1939, one policy of the seven was paid at less than 10% of the original value to a blocked account in Germany.
After the War, the remaining family was destitute. My grandmother, in an attempt to collect the outstanding insurance money, hired a German Lawyer. In 1956, Basler Leben and the lawyer advocated for a payout that was once again a fraction of the value of the remaining seven policies. The family was told, this was the best offer; a take it or leave it scenario. Given the continued poverty and duress of these years, this “bird in hand” was agreed to.
In 1999 my mother questioned this settlement, and filed a claim for the life insurance through the New York State Banking Department, and eventually the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims (ICHEIC). Through a tortuous process and years later, in August 2006 her claim was heard by The Appeals Office of London, and was denied. The Appeals Office denial was based on the fact that there was a settlement supported by various other convoluted post-War agreements. Today, the successor of Basler Leben is Baloise Life Insurance Co Ltd. Baloise Life has documented records of all eight polices, and most certainly has calculated the present day value of the payout.
Make no mistake, I acknowledge there was a settlement and under the law, then and now, a settlement is binding. Apartheid was the law of the land. Slavery was legal and selling slaves was legal. Does this make it justifiable and right? Wouldn’t it be more just, if the victor had to relinquish the spoils of war and fund a charity working towards peace and ending suffering, towards truth and reconciliation?
It is challenging to right a wrong, and not all wrongs can be truly righted. No one will give limbs back to the Rwandans dismembered in the 1994 genocide or return the families lost in the Holocaust. These intense losses are common through history. My father’s last words to my mother were “Don’t cry, the last 20 years were a gift.”
I recognize this as my gift, and my burden, to continue the search for justice – that perpetrators don’t continue to profit.
Banks and insurance companies are not frontline perpetrators, but adjuncts to and beneficiaries of the crimes of war and racism. Basler Leben took full advantage of the legal situation and Baloise Insurance continues to do so, seeking shelter behind old agreements that mainly considered economic success. It is unconscionable that Baloise Insurance continues to benefit from money wrenched from injustice and sorrow of others.
If we really want to reconcile our past, then the answer must always be no, it is never too late to right a wrong.
Helen Josephs was born in New York City and raised in a secular Queens family. To this day she maintains strong ties with family and friends from the war years in Holland. Presently she lives and works as an RN Case Manager in Fairbanks, Alaska.