www.jcpa.org - No. 93, 15 January 2010 / 29 Teveth 5770
Leading Dutch Ministers Look Back on
Holocaust-Assets Restitution Interviews with
Wim Kok, Gerrit Zalm, and Els Borst
by Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld
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 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. 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) - 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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The Postwar Dutch Government Acted Wrongly
Interview with Gerrit Zalm
"During the renewed restitution process I was asked: ‘Are you of the opinion that the Dutch postwar government acted wrongly on this issue?' I answered, ‘Yes.'"
Gerrit Zalm was finance minister in the Kok cabinet at the time when suddenly - in the latter half of the 1990s - the discussion on the shortcomings of postwar restitution to the Dutch Jewish community came to public attention.
He says: "This started with the London Gold Conference in 1997. It turned out that the Dutch state was still entitled to 20 million guilders. It couldn't be clarified if this gold was state property or if it had been looted from Jews. I said then, ‘We don't want that gold; we will make it available to the Jewish community.'
"This marked the beginning of a process that would take several years. The next development was that, on a television program during that year, it was revealed that part of the Lippman Rosenthal (LIRO) archive had been found. That was the looting bank where, during the war, the Jews had to deposit their possessions. The archive had been abandoned in an Amsterdam building that was inhabited by students. This was very negligent, to put it mildly.
"It later became known that what ultimately remained of the LIRO assets had been raffled off at a low taxation value of many years earlier to the personnel of the agency that, after the war, handled the remaining possessions. I found that shocking. It was a discovery that deeply shamed me."
Not a Real Politician
"During the renewed restitution process, I was asked: ‘Are you of the opinion that the Dutch postwar government acted wrongly on this issue?' I answered, ‘Yes.'"
Zalm remarks: "This attitude probably results from the fact that I was not a real politician. I became finance minister by chance; I had worked in this ministry the first eight years of my career. I once said: ‘I didn't go into politics; I became finance minister.'
"We then investigated what remained of Jewish possessions after the war. Then too the legal question emerged. The inheritance of someone who has no heirs goes to the state. Our legal position was thus very strong, but there was also the moral aspect. I recommended that we accept our moral responsibility toward the Jewish community without recognizing the legal responsibility. This was accepted by the cabinet."
In his memoirs Zalm tells that initially Kok upheld the legal aspect. At the Stockholm conference on Holocaust education, he rejected a collective claim of the Jewish community on the estates of individual Jews. However, Zalm's position - "It cannot be that the Dutch state enriches itself due to the murder of entire families" - prevailed.
"I then invited the representatives of the Jewish community to the Finance Ministry. Their umbrella organization, the CJO had just been established. I found it a difficult conversation. It was so obvious that after the war our ministry had acted wrongly in the restitution process."
The Value of the Assets
"Later a discussion developed on how - many decades after the war - these nonrestituted assets should be evaluated. We had established the Van Kemenade Commission in March 1997, which originally had the limited task of critically following the investigations of Holocaust assets abroad. Its undertaking was later extended substantially to include Dutch restitution issues as well.
"In its report of January 2000, the commission recommended making a financial ‘gesture' toward the Jewish community. The CJO responded that they had no need of a ‘gesture.' One of their representatives said: ‘The Jewish community doesn't want a "gesture." We want what we are entitled to - no more, no less.'
"That was an important moment in the discussion. I found it an agreeable approach; it meant one could solve the problem by making calculations. This makes the issue more objective than if one speaks, for instance, about immaterial damage. It was a very emotional issue and the Jewish representatives chose to approach it in a businesslike way. I realized then that we would reach a solution.
"The amount to be paid by the state was finally fixed at 400 million guilders. Of this 350 million guilders were for Dutch Jews, to be divided between those in the Netherlands and those in Israel, while 50 million guilders were earmarked for East European Jewish projects.
"This latter amount was also important. I wasn't happy about the money going only to individuals. I wanted us to do something for the future of the Jewish community outside the Netherlands. Furthermore, the CJO decided that 20 percent of the amount we had agreed on would be used for community purposes for Dutch Jews in the Netherlands and Israel.
"The agreement we reached with the CJO was approved by the cabinet. I finally obtained support for this. Now we could inform the parliament. I was glad that the negotiations I had undertaken on behalf of the government had led to an agreement. I look back now with satisfaction that this problematic issue was resolved successfully."
Dutchmen from the Dutch East Indies and Jews
When asked about the difference in the negotiations with the Jews and those with the Dutchmen from the former Dutch East Indies, Zalm answered: "I consider that a very different case. The emotions were equally great, but the two issues were incomparable. The Dutch state did not possess assets that had belonged to these Dutchmen. These people had also suffered damage, but the government had not enriched itself from this.
"The Dutchmen who had lived in the former Dutch East Indies wanted to be treated like the Jews. In conversations with their representatives I told them that I was familiar with both sides, through my wife who came from the Dutch East Indies, and her Jewish parents-in-law from her first husband. In the end these Dutchmen received a financial ‘gesture,' and not something to which their community was legally entitled.
"The two histories had two things in common. They both concerned issues of the Second World War, and in both cases the Dutch government had treated the people coldly after the war. There was no other common denominator regarding the two communities. All in all I was happy that I had to deal with the Jewish community and not with those from the former Dutch East Indies."
Support for the Negotiations
"From the beginning the Dutch government had a rather neutral position about who should be our Jewish partners in the discussions. The CJO was by far the largest organized representation of the Jewish community in the Netherlands. There were some people who criticized the negotiations, but they didn't belong to any organization. I later found out that the agreement with the CJO had very broad support within the Jewish community.
"Since the restitution negotiations I have had very good contacts with people I met at that time. I even acquired friends from that period, and that doesn't happen easily in politics. This for me is proof that both parties concluded the matter in a decent way. When later there were issues in the government concerning the Jewish community, I was always called upon by the Jewish representatives. I had the feeling, as it were, that I had become the minister for Jewish affairs.
"In one example, I was approached regarding a proposal to always allow the emptying of individual graves after a certain period, in light of the scarcity of cemetery grounds. This raised religious problems in Jewish circles. I then initiated contacts with the ministers of justice and interior and, as a result, the proposal did not pass in its original form.
"Furthermore, as Dutch finance minister, I was also Israel's representative on the board of the World Bank. I have a special relationship with Israel via my wife, whose first father-in-law lived there and whom we had visited."
For his role in the Dutch restitution negotiations, Zalm received the Hebrew University's Scopus Award in March 2001. At the ceremony he said: "I would have liked to share this prize with the leaders of the Jewish community. They worked together with me over the last several years on the restitution of Jewish assets. They devoted as much time and effort in defending their actions to the people they represented as I did." Zalm later said: "I found it very special that so many people had come from the Netherlands especially to participate in this ceremony."
He continued: "When we started with the new restitution process, I had no idea where it might lead, nor what obligations we would have to assume. I hope that when this is investigated, people will tell us that we can be proud of the solutions we found."
The Labor Party Aspect
An incident between the CJO representatives and Kok received substantial publicity in Jewish circles. After a meeting in the so-called Trêves Room in the government buildings, the prime minister left without shaking hands with the CJO representatives. Zalm comments: "In my opinion, the prime minister regarded the restitution process as an accusation against his parents' generation, and perhaps also his own.
"For me it was different. I was born in 1952, well after the war. Furthermore, Pieter Lieftinck, the postwar finance minister, who was involved in the restitution process, was a Labor Party politician like Kok. I always had the feeling that when there was a public statement that ‘the matter wasn't handled well after the war,' Kok saw this as an accusation against the government of the time, the generation with which he felt connected, and his party. He also had other problems with the restitution events. They were an exception to the common rule that the state always inherits the assets of people with no heirs.
"The second point is that Kok's character is somewhat different from mine. He makes, in particular during negotiations, a somewhat grumpy impression. This doesn't necessarily indicate a difference in politics. The feeling on the Jewish side was that leaving without shaking hands was simply not polite.
"I tried to explain Kok's conduct by saying he wouldn't have behaved this way at another location. We always sit in the Trêves Room for full governmental and subcommittee meetings. We never shake hands at the end of these. If the conversation had taken place somewhere else, he wouldn't have made that mistake."
Zalm adds, "As far as I am concerned that conversation should not have taken place at all. The CJO had asked for it and afterward they told me, ‘We're glad that we are again dealing with you.'"
When asked, Zalm says: "I assume that there is a similar explanation for Kok's speech at the Stockholm conference. In that speech he found it difficult to extend apologies for the behavior of the postwar Dutch government. Such apologies would imply an accusation of that government with which, as I've said, he felt a connection. When he later finally extended apologies, he said that what had happened after the war regarding restitution was not intentional. That is what we assumed at the time."
Insurers and Banks
"Besides the government, the insurers and banks also had to negotiate with the Jewish community. Insurers traditionally have more regard for the mood of society than do bankers. They concluded the negotiations with the Jewish community quite well before those of the government had even begun.
"The banks also negotiated on behalf of the stock exchange. For a long time they took a rather detached approach. Hence they came under heavy pressure regarding the stock exchange. The representatives of the Jewish community were never received by the higher management of the banks. This technique of negotiations was never applied at the ministry. From the beginning I was present at all meetings with the CJO.
"I encouraged the banks to solve the matter quickly. In the end the pressure from the United States to conclude the issue cost them unnecessary money from their point of view. If, from the beginning, the banks had taken a reasonable position and received the Jewish community decently, they would have paid less. I didn't pity them."
On the final question of why the Dutch government, contrary to so many other governments, didn't offer apologies to the Jews for the poor behavior of its predecessors in exile in London, Zalm answers: "I wouldn't have had difficulty in offering apologies. If the CJO would raise this issue today, I would support it publicly."
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The Netherlands Should Apologize to the Jewish Community
Interview with Els Borst
"If I had been prime minister I would have offered apologies to the Dutch Jewish community without hesitation. This would refer both to our government's attitude during the Second World War and to the very late postwar discovery that the restitution process had been poorly conceived."
"If I had been prime minister I would have offered apologies to the Dutch Jewish community without hesitation. This would refer both to our government's attitude during the Second World War and to the very late postwar discovery that the restitution process had been poorly conceived. Also, the WUV law (Victims of Persecution [1940-1945] Benefits Act) had been established far too late."
Dr. Els Borst-Eilers was minister of public health, wellbeing, and sport from 1994 to 2002. Before that she was vice-chair of the Council for Health, a scientific advisory body to the Dutch government. She also was a part-time professor at Amsterdam University.
Borst says: "One task of my ministry was to deal with the consequences for individuals of the Second World War. The laws of previous governments regarding war victims and the special pensions and social benefits due to them were under our management. I had to execute or supervise these laws. This brought me into contact with the problems of the postwar restitution.
"The renewed restitution discussions at the turn of the century gave me a sense of great shame. Previous governments had done nothing or very little to investigate the issue. My main feeling was: ‘Now it must finally happen. How unfortunate that we are getting to this so late.'"
Differences in the Ministers' Attitudes
For the CJO representatives it was clear that Borst's attitude at the negotiation table with them was different from Kok's. She observes: "Kok considered that after the war everyone was busy with his own problems and the reconstruction of the Netherlands. For him what happened to the Jewish Dutchmen was more a matter of simply ignoring their problems than bad intentions."
Borst remarks: "I joined the government from outside the political world. I learned there that people from the same party do not readily disagree." She adds that the prime minister, being a member of the Labor Party and out of party loyalty, did not want to distance himself from the postwar prime minister Willem Schermerhorn and finance minister Pieter Lieftinck, both Labor politicians and key figures in the postwar restitution process.
"My colleague Zalm, born after the war, devoted himself fully to the issue of the renewed restitution to the Dutch Jewish community. It was a matter of honor for him to conclude these negotiations positively. Zalm considered that the postwar restitution had not proceeded correctly."
Living the War Consciously
Borst says about her background: "I was eight years old when the Germans invaded our country in 1940, and thirteen when they were ejected. At that age you are already aware of many things. I have always lived in Amsterdam. During the war we inhabited the Rivieren neighborhood where many Jews lived at the time. Our downstairs neighbors were Jews, and there were also Jews a few houses from us. We saw how they were rounded up and taken away. That made a very great impression on me.
"After the war I was occupied with other matters, such as school and studying. To the extent that I understood what was happening, the Jews who returned were not received with an attitude of ‘we will do everything possible to reimburse the financial losses as well as what remains of the possessions of your late parents and other family members.' The tremendous human losses, of course, could not be restituted."
In the restitution negotiations at the end of the twentieth century, Borst was responsible for the Dutch community from the former Dutch East Indies. "Nobody there had even a scrap of paper to show that he had had any possessions that had been looted by the Japanese.
"The number of Dutchmen who died in the East Indies is far smaller than the one hundred thousand murdered Dutch Jews. Nevertheless, in the restitution negotiations there was jealousy toward the Jews within that community. When I talked with them, there were often annoying conversations in the style of ‘Why do they get more per person than we do?' It was a relief to deal with the Jewish representatives, not only because they brought proof but because they also had - besides the emotions involved - a rather businesslike and realistic attitude."
A Bad Government
Borst comes back to the war: "We now know that the persecution of the Jews hardly bothered Queen Wilhelmina. She spoke all the time about the heroes of the resistance and thought that the entire Netherlands was resisting. The Queen spoke in a manner of ‘all of you who fight so courageously,' which was far from the truth.
"The weak Dutch government in exile in London should not have left everything to the Queen. Prime Minister Pieter Gerbrandy should have addressed the population on the radio to the effect that ‘we expect you to protect your fellow Jewish citizens from deportation. Try to take them into your homes, help them to flee, do whatever you can. You must do something for our fellow citizens.'
"My feeling is that if all Catholics or Reformed Christians had been deported to Germany, the Dutch government in London would have instructed the population in the occupied Netherlands to help them. The government's attitude testified that its members, like many others, saw the Jewish Dutchmen as a special group who were not ‘real Dutchmen.'
"Before the war many Dutchmen thought the 140,000 Jews among them were a group that should be watched. They might be a threat - for instance, they might get the good jobs, or aspire to dominance in the financial world. These people were parroting each other with no knowledge of the facts."
"This lack of interest in the fate of the Jews was a consequence of prewar anti-Semitism in the Netherlands. It also existed in my nice family. I had a fully Jewish uncle who had married a non-Jew. At the beginning of the war he divorced his wife in order to save her from danger. He thereby endangered himself as he was then no longer in a mixed marriage. He was hidden all throughout the war in Haarlem and fortunately enough survived. Our entire family was happy about this.
"Yet before the war, for instance at family gatherings for a birthday, it was quite common to hear comments such as ‘a typical Jewish trick' or ‘the Jews take good care of themselves.' That was when someone had done something smart with money. I noticed this already as a small child.
"None of us would have wanted to do any evil to a Jew. Yet there was a feeling of ‘they have done very well financially' despite the fact that there were many very poor Jews in Amsterdam. The Rivieren neighborhood was a middle class area."
Parallels with the Present
Borst sees parallels between the war years, her time in the government, and current Dutch politics. She was a minister at the time of the mass murder in the Bosnian town of Srebrenica, and also when the results of the subsequent inquiry by the Dutch Institute for War Documentation (NIOD) were published in 2002. The NIOD claimed in its report that when the Dutch government decided to recall the Dutch United Nations soldiers from Srebrenica, it did not know of the dangers to the Bosnian citizens. Borst remarks: "The NIOD embellished what had happened."
After Minister Jan Pronk of the Labor Party said the government had actually known what was happening in Srebrenica and about the dangers to the citizens there, Borst confirmed that this was true. She remarks: "Pronk did not by chance hinder Kok. Within the same party there is often a battle about who is the hero with the clear conscience.
"Kok understood only after the report appeared seven years later that in 1995, when he was already prime minister, he had acted wrongly. This included his participating in the ‘victory' festivities with the Dutch soldiers in Zagreb. In 2002, he was deeply ashamed. The government resigned, which was rather strange as it was so close to the elections. Kok said: ‘I cannot sleep anymore if I don't take responsibility for what happened. I should have done this much earlier. We, as a government, should have behaved differently at the time.'
As far as the present is concerned, Borst says: "There are many nice, peaceful Muslims, but the Netherlands is far too tolerant regarding the statements of the radical wing of Islam. This also concerns Moroccan youngsters who make anti-Semitic remarks or commit anti-Semitic acts. They were not born as Jew-haters, but they live in a culture where this is tolerated or even encouraged.
"There is much cover-up in the Netherlands in the name of a multicultural society. Ayaan Hirsi Ali made this very clear many times.  She was very right about this."
Interviews by Manfred Gerstenfeld
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These interviews are part of a research project on the Dutch restitution process. This project was made possible through the support of the Stichting Collectieve Marorgelden Israel. (SCMI ) and the Conference on Jewish Material Claims against Germany (Rabbi Israel Miller Fund for Shoah Research, Documentation and Education).
 Platform Israel, the roof organization of the Dutch Jewish community in Israel was an observer in the CJO delegation participating in the negotiations.
 The insurance companies, banks, and stock exchange also made payments of 50 million guilders, 50 million guilders, and 264 million guilders, respectively.
 This is a left-of-center party.
 Gerrit Zalm, De Romantische Boekhouder (Amsterdam: Balans, 2009), 393. [Dutch]
 Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a secular Muslim, is a former member of the Dutch parliament for the Liberal Party. She has since left for the United States.
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