Pandora's Box: Revisiting the Dutch Postwar Holocaust Restitution Process

Article excerpt

PANDORA'S BOX: REVISITING THE DUTCH POSTWAR HOLOCAUST RESTITUTION PROCESS Judging the Netherlands: The Renewed Holocaust Restitution Process, 1997-2000, by Manfred Gerstenfeld, Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, 2011, 217 pp.

Reviewed by Bart Wallet

In the middle of the public debate on the renewed round of Holocaust restitution in the Netherlands, one of the leading Dutch newspapers, NRC Handelsblad, remarked that the government had opened a Pandoras box. The various official commissions that had been instated to investigate the restitution of looted possessions of Dutch Jews in the postwar era came to shocking results. Each of the published reports contained painful information, documenting the cold and bureaucratic treatment of Jews in the years immediately following 1945. Partly because of international developments, it was impossible to close the box again. The truth had to be brought to light, and the faults of postwar restitution policies had to be corrected.

The subject of Manfred Gerstenfelds Judging the Netherlands is this second round of Holocaust restitution, aimed at correcting the restitution policies in the immediate postwar years. Gerstenfeld, who survived the war in hiding in Amsterdam and whose family played a major role in the postwar reconstruction of the city's Jewish community, closely followed the restitution process during the second half of the 1990s. As he discloses in the introduction, he declined the offer to participate in the restitution negotiations on behalf of the Dutch Jewish immigrant community in Israel but accepted an informal advisory role and was a commentator on the process in the international press. This explains why Judging the Netherlands is particularly well informed about the negotiations and the personal attitudes of the principal players. It documents not only the final outcome of the process but also the routes not taken.

During the last decade, a number of important studies have been published on the immediate postwar restitution process, such as the reports of the governmental commissions, and studies by Gerard Aalders en Wouter Veraart. Gerstenfeld, however, is unique in his approach to the most recent round of restitution. His book gives a fascinating inside look into the development of the restitution debates in the Netherlands, triggered by the international attention that was prompted, in turn, by the dubious role played by the Swiss banks during and after the Holocaust. Gerstenfeld skillfully unravels the rather complex structure of various official commissions dealing with different aspects of postwar restitution policies. The Kordes Commission dealt with claims on privately owned goods of Dutch Jews stolen during the war. The Schölten Commission researched the looting of securities, bank accounts, and insurance policies; while, for its part, the Van Kemenade Commission concentrated on the gold-pool restitution and claims against the Dutch state.

Predominantly based on a close reading of the commission reports, media coverage, and conversations with the main players-such as former prime minister Wim Kok and finance minister Gerrit Zalm-the author highlights two important aspects of the second round of Dutch restitution. First, he stresses the importance of international developments such as the affair of dormant Swiss Bank accounts which broke out in the mid-nineties. The Dutch process was not an isolated case; both at the start and over the years, international contacts, research, and pressure propelled the debate. Second, the oral history conducted by the author conveys the personal dimensions of the process. Each of the major players, in the government, the commissions, and in the representative body of the Jewish community, experienced clear and often outspoken emotions while dealing with the somber task of bringing justice to Holocaust survivors and their descendants. …