Manfred Gerstenfeld on The Romantic Bookkeeper

, April 14, 2010

Jewish Political Studies Review 22:1-2 (Spring 2010)

Unless there were a compelling reason to do so, one would not usually review a book that devotes only 6 of its 400 pages to a Jewish subject. In this case, the memoirs of the liberal politician Gerrit Zalm, the longest-serving Dutch finance minister (1994-2002 and 2003-2007) and deputy prime minister (2003-2007), contain disclosures of historical importance.

This book concludes with a short section titled “Minister for Jewish Affairs” (390-396). The main issue Zalm raises here is the renewed restitution discussions with the Dutch Jewish community at the end of the last century. This process constitutes a most important chapter in the history of postwar Dutch Jewry.

During World War II the Germans plundered most Dutch Jewish possessions, using the Lippmann Rosenthal Sarphatistraat bank (LIRO) as an agency that they fashioned especially for this purpose. At the end of the postwar liquidation of the assets of this institution, some minor items – mainly jewelry and costly personal accessories – remained in the possession of an agency of the Finance Ministry. Zalm tells how shocked he was when he learned from a television report that, in the early 1960s, employees of this body had held a raffle to decide who could buy which item on the basis of an assessed taxation value of many years earlier.

Because this took place at the ministry for which he was responsible, and even though it occurred long before his term as minister, Zalm considered resigning. Senior ministry officials convinced him that this would be an overreaction. The late Dutch Jewish historian Isaac Lipschits noted that, after a discussion of the LIRO affair, Zalm met him in the parliament building. He said he wanted to present his personal apologies. Lipschits remarked, “But Minister, when this happened you were still going around in short trousers.” Zalm replied: “I am a successor of postwar finance minister Pieter Lieftinck and thus responsible for what happened then.”[1]

Lieftinck, a neophyte socialist, was the first postwar finance minister (1945-1952). His major aim was to hasten the economic revival of the Dutch economy, which had been hard hit by the war. In this frame of mind, he favored the interests of the Amsterdam security traders, who had collaborated with the German occupiers at the expense of the Jews whose possessions had been looted. One of the commissions of inquiry before the turn of the century investigated the postwar restitution details and condemns his behavior in this matter.[2]

Zalm also tells how apprehensive he was before his first meeting at the ministry with the representatives of the CJO, the Dutch Jewish umbrella organization for external affairs, as in his view “the Finance Ministry is in the dock of the accused.” To his relief the CJO chairman, Henri Markens, opened by telling a joke. Zalm notes: “When I tell how ashamed I am and present my apologies on behalf of the Finance Ministry, the atmosphere improves greatly. I promise that the matter will be fully investigated” (393).

According to Dutch law, the possessions of persons who have no heirs fall to the state. This is what happened after the war with assets of murdered Dutch Jews who had no surviving family members. Zalm notes that Prime Minister Wim Kok of the Labor Party initially wanted to adhere to established precedent. However, Zalm took the position that: “It cannot be that the Dutch state enriches itself due to the murder of entire families” (393). Seeking to give weight to the emotional over the legal arguments, Zalm succeeded and the cabinet approved his position.

After what the government called “discussions” – a euphemism for negotiations – with the CJO, the Dutch government agreed in 2000 to pay 400 million guilders (about 180 million euros) to the Dutch Jewish communities in the Netherlands and Israel. Of this, 20 percent would be used for communal purposes and 80 percent would be distributed among individuals.

Zalm mentions the goodwill that his role in this issue has earned him not only in Dutch Jewish circles but also in Israel. He received awards from Hebrew University and Ben-Gurion University (394). When asked in an interview why the Dutch government, unlike many other governments, did not offer apologies to the Jews for the poor behavior of its predecessors in exile in London, Zalm replied: “I wouldn’t have had difficulty in offering apologies. If the CJO would raise this issue today, I would support it publicly.”[3] The Dutch Jewish leadership, however, has lacked the initiative, historical understanding, and self-respect to pursue this matter.

Zalm’s family background gave him a certain understanding of the Jewish reality in the Netherlands. He played a crucial role in the success of the renewed restitution negotiations. Had this not been the case, the Dutch image worldwide might have been tainted due to the government’s war and post war behavior far more than was the case with Switzerland as a result of the dormant bank accounts affair.

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Notes

[1] Isaac Lipschits, personal communication.

[2] Scholten Commissie, “Eindrapport van de Begeleidingscommissie onderzoek financiele tegoeden WO-II in Nederland,” 15 December 1999. [Dutch]

[3] Manfred Gerstenfeld, “Leading Dutch Ministers Look Back on End-of-Century Holocaust-Assets Restitution,” interviews with Wim Kok, Gerrit Zalm, and Els Borst, Post-Holocaust and Anti-Semitism, 93, 15 January 2010.

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DR. MANFRED GERSTENFELD is chairman of the Board of Fellows of the JCPA and an editor of JPSR.

 

Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld

Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld is emeritus chairman (2000-2012) of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. The author was given the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Journal for the Study of Antisemitism, and the International Leadership Award by the Simon Wiesenthal Center. His latest book is The War of a Million Cuts: The Struggle against the Delegitimization of Israel and the Jews, and the Growth of New Anti-Semitism (2015). His previous books include Europe’s Crumbling Myths: The Post-Holocaust Origins of Today’s Anti-Semitism; Judging the Netherlands: The Renewed Holocaust Restitution Process, 1997-2000; and The Abuse of Holocaust Memory: Distortions and Responses.