- How to Accept German Reparations by Susan Slyomovics
This book is extremely personal. Susan Slyomovics, an anthropologist of the Middle East, reveals her own Jewish family’s reactions to German reparations in order to analyze the meaning of reparations in the overall context of mourning for the dead.
Full disclosure requires me to say that I may have been more interested in this book than other potential readers because my Jewish family’s story intersected with Slyomovics’ story. Slyomovics’ father may well have met members of my extended family. He was able to come to Canada with his wife in 1948 because the government agreed to permit 500 furriers to immigrate, and he had trained as a furrier in Leipzig before the war. While in Leipzig, he might have met my greatuncle and my step-grandfather, both of whom were furriers. And he might have eaten in the last restaurant open to Jews, owned by a member of my extended family (later murdered).
But one does not need to have such a personal reaction to profit from reading Slyomovics’ brilliant analysis of the meaning of reparations. This is a book informed by deep thought and theoretical speculation, especially on the meaning of money and its connection to emotional relationships. Slyomovics’ mother and grandmother survived the concentration camps, but they had very different attitudes to reparations. Her grandmother took everything she could get, while her mother refused “blood money” until the twenty-first century, when she decided to accept reparations for slave labor. But she made sure that as soon as reparations funds arrived in her bank account, the money went out again, donated to various Jewish causes. Her own contribution to post-Holocaust reparations consisted of witnessing, as a frequent speaker at Canadian high schools. In particular, she visited the high school in Eckville, Alberta where James Keegstra, a notorious Holocaust denier, had taught history, blaming every great European tragedy on the Jews.
The German term for reparations to Jews and other victims of Nazism is Wiedergutmachung (making good again). A better term would be Wiedereinbischenbessermachung (“making things a bit better,” my own coinage in my high school German). Building on George Simmel’s analysis of money, Slyomovics argues that the “monetization of guilt”1 buys an element of social peace, in which money is exchanged for forgiveness. Referring to the German philosopher Axel Honneth, Slyomovics also argues that reparations function as a form of recognition, an awareness of the necessity for perpetrators to respond to the pain they caused and commit “acts of collective atonement.”2 Yet German reparations policy was fraught with emotional problems. In the early post-war period, many German officials took an adversarial approach to Jewish claimants for reparations. And for the claimants themselves, the necessity to tell their stories to German officials was often a form of re-traumatization.
Reparations money was an inadequate substitute for all the other ways in which Jews created and enacted “rituals of remembrance.”3 Since the fall of the [End Page 244] Berlin Wall, many surviving Jews and their children and grandchildren have made pilgrimages to their places of origin. There, they have refurbished Jewish cemeteries and installed tombstones in memory of the dead, building “recreated cemeteries minus actual bodies.”4 These rituals constitute what Slyomovics, following the literary critic Marianne Hirsch, calls “post-memory” for the children of survivors.5 Archives are also an important aspect of coming to terms with the Holocaust, as children and grandchildren find small clues about their ancestors’ lives. The “archival sliver”6 provides a tiny window into the Holocaust as individual Jews endured it.
Slyomovics, originally a scholar of the Arab Middle East and an Arabic speaker, ends her book with two chapters on how reparations play out elsewhere. She first analyses Algerian Jewish claims for reparations from Germany. Algerian Jews were not deported and murdered, but they were interned, separately from interned Algerian Muslims. But the Algerian Jews did not view themselves first and foremost as Jews: they viewed themselves as French...