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Leading Dutch Ministers Look Back on End-of-Century Holocaust-Assets Restitution

Filed under: Anti-Semitism, Europe and Israel, International Law, Israel, World Jewry
Publication: Post-Holocaust and Anti-Semitism

No. 93, 15

 Interviews with Wim Kok, Gerrit Zalm, and Els Borst.

In the final five years of the previous century, major international attention was focused on the postwar restitution of Holocaust assets. In particular, dormant Swiss bank accounts became a subject of debate. In this framework, new facts emerged regarding the shortcomings in the restitution of Holocaust assets in the Netherlands.

A number of inquiry commissions were appointed. The main one was the Van Kemenade Commission, named after its chairman, a former Dutch minister. The Centraal Joods Overleg (CJO), the umbrella organization for external affairs of the Dutch Jewish community[1] negotiated about payments with the government, the insurance companies, banks, and the Amsterdam Stock Exchange.

The largest payment was made by the Dutch government. In March 2000, it informed the parliament that it would pay 400 million guilders to the Dutch Jewish community.[2] In the interviews below, the three Dutch ministers who handled this matter – then-Prime Minister Wim Kok (Labor Party), then-Finance Minister Gerrit Zalm (Liberal Party), and then-Deputy Prime Minister and Minister Els Borst (D66)[3] – look back on this issue.

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The Restitution Question

Interview with Wim Kok

  • “Looking back, I have a good feeling. Nevertheless I have also felt, from time to time, less at ease on this matter. This occurred in conversations with some representatives of the Jewish community as well. They were sometimes very insistent.”

“In the renewed restitution discussions that started in the Netherlands at the end of the last century, the Van Kemenade Commission report played a major role. After a lengthy political debate on the issue, the feeling emerged that ‘we have to do something about it.'”

Wim Kok was prime minister of the Netherlands from 1994 to 2002. On behalf of the government, he, Finance Minister Gerrit Zalm, and Public Health Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Els Borst dealt with the restitution problems that, after decades of neglect, again came to public attention late in the last century.

Kok explains: “The Van Kemenade Commission concluded that a ‘gesture’ should be made to the Jewish community. This same expression came up often in public discussion. I considered the word gesture to be inappropriate. For me it was a matter of solidarity with those who had suffered during the Second World War only because they were Jewish. We thought it was our obligation – not a legal but a moral one – to find suitable solutions.

“Therefore I did not want to use either the word gesture or compensation. When people who have a feel for the Dutch language hear the word gesture, they think it is something by which we solved a problem. The word compensation cannot be used because horrible things happened during the war that can never be compensated. Therefore, to me the word allowance seemed to be the best.”

Support in Society

“Now, many years later, thinking again about what happened at the turn of the century, I want to state that our main goal was to come to a suitable solution, considering what had happened in the past and taking into account the sentiments in Dutch society at large.

“For me, this last issue was very important. A government has to take into account the feelings of its general population. It is important that one generates support, not only in parliament, but also in society at large for any solution being proposed. The restitution issue was a burning one that attracted much attention.

“There are always people who, with a certain lack of understanding, look critically at those who in their eyes benefit from an allowance. To some extent this is unavoidable. It is therefore so important that one explains to society, already during the process, the motivations for the proposed solution. This approach was obviously successful because there were no major reactions in the Netherlands of lack of understanding or opposition to payment of the allowances. This proves that the government had built a good foundation within the society, where this process was brought to a conclusion without any serious problems.

“After extensive deliberations and in consultation with the parliament, the government decided to make financial means available in a rather generous fashion. We then consulted the representatives of those concerned. There were contacts with delegates of the various groups to help clarify how we could best give content to this allowance. Everything was done in harmony between the government and parliament, where there was no strong opposition.

“Minister Zalm carried out the decisions that we had taken jointly. We weighed these very carefully after we had informed ourselves about the sentiments on this matter in Dutch society and the Jewish community. Looking back, I have a good feeling. Nevertheless I have also felt, from time to time, less at ease on this matter. This occurred in conversations with some representatives of the Jewish community as well. They were on occasion very insistent.”

Irritation and Good Feelings

Kok refers to a meeting in the government buildings, after which Jewish representatives said he did not even shake hands with them when he left. He remarks: “I do not occupy myself all day or all week with a single issue. There are many more things to think about. People we talk to sometimes can plead fanatically about an issue of importance to them, but which doesn’t have the same importance to me as other issues on the government agenda at the same time.

“The government at that time was involved in devising a general solution, not only in the financial but also in the political sense. In such a situation it wasn’t pleasant to be addressed in a way that implied we were not aware of all the injustice the Jewish community had suffered after the Second World War. I was also slightly irritated that people sometimes spoke as if our resources were unlimited. This was obviously not the case. Furthermore, if resources have to be divided, there are multiple target and interest groups.

“Despite all this I still have a good feeling about the renewed restitution process, because almost everyone involved could live with the results. They collaborated to bring this matter to an end, without too many angry words. I also think that, in leaving to the CJO the detailed decisions regarding distribution of the funds available, we chose the right approach. In this way they could, in their own circles, deal with how the money should be used. It seems to me that this saved the government many headaches.”

Switzerland Not a Model

Kok adds: “The policy of Switzerland in the renewed restitution issue as far as dormant bank accounts were concerned was not a model for us. Our own considerations about how to deal with this matter were determinant.

“It was the CJO that wanted to negotiate by itself without involving international Jewish organizations, in particular the World Jewish Congress (WJC).” Kok adds: “The CJO’s opinions on how the restitution discussions should be handled played an important role for us, and that is logical. We wanted primarily to find a suitable solution within Dutch society. Exposing the issue to the rest of the world could have opened a Pandora’s box. We wished to keep the conversation orderly and manageable.

“During the international conference on Holocaust education in Stockholm in January 2000, I had a conversation with Israel Singer, then secretary-general of the WJC. At first this was very difficult, but we slowly reached a better understanding. His input played a role in our deliberations. It is important that, in this conversation, we created a climate of accepting that we did not agree on all points.

“I was intensely involved in the restitution issue until the moment the decisions were made by the Council of Ministers. The delegation of competences only began after we, in this council, had established the framework for the agreement.

“The cabinet took its final decision, which had been well prepared by Ministers Zalm, Borst, and myself. It is quite common – this is the case with hundreds of other files as well – that after the cabinet takes a decision on the main matters, the appropriate ministers deal with the details. They can,  either bilaterally or through officials, come back to the prime minister if there is something specific that requires additional agreement.”

Apologies for Postwar Behavior

After Kok’s speech at the Stockholm conference, he was criticized for not offering his government’s apologies for the postwar government’s behavior toward the Jews.

Kok says: “I do not like to express apologies for something I did not do myself. This is a general attitude. I was confronted with this issue in a far more profound way in the Srebrenica affair (where our government resigned). As prime minister I found it far too simple to say about my predecessors, who were people of integrity: ‘I offer you apologies on behalf of my predecessors as well, because they dealt with this matter inappropriately.’

“I am not one of those who use the word sorry too easily. If I have dealt with someone improperly or have done something ungracious, I have no problem – if it is justified – in saying so. This is a different matter if it concerns governments of many decades ago.

“I want to add that not expressing apologies doesn’t say anything about my judgment concerning developments before, during, or after the Second World War. As chairman of the Anne Frank Foundation, I am intensely involved in this history. I have also made an effort to keep alive the memory of the Second World War, as well as the process of thinking and drawing conclusions about it. The historical images cannot be removed. There are books that are never closed.”

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