How to Accept German Reparations

Susan Slyomovics, an anthropologist and specialist in Middle Eastern and North African societies, has written a book that is part family memoir, part analysis, and part meditation on recipients’ reactions to the vast enterprise of German reparations for the grievous wrongs inflicted on European Jews during the Second World War.   Her method is “intimate ethnography,” (p. 54)  which in this case entails a protracted rumination on two opposing perspectives on reparations – those of her mother and grandmother, survivors of Auschwitz and other camps.   A sprawling, messy book, it is not for readers seeking an orderly or systematic discussion.   For me, trying to make sense of this work was like trying to follow a boisterous seminar in the Slyomovics home, with opinions forcefully expressed by two strong-willed matriarchs, deeply at odds with each other, joined by many other drop-ins: survivors, numerous luminaries from many other disciplines, a handful of psychiatrists, investigators of Holocaust testimonies, archivists, novelists, poets, and other students of the subject – all trying to get a word in edgewise.

Slyomovics has assembled these voices, but does not take much time to introduce the personalities or to exercise a forceful role as moderator.  Usually, everyone goes on at very considerable length.   Slyomovics presents survivor-relatives, authors and documents with little if any editing, sometimes extending over several pages – and she is no friend of chronology or the well-defined, orderly presentation of topics.   The result is that she is quite difficult to read.  To illustrate, I offer here the first sentence of the first page of the first chapter of the book, indicating how far this is from the “measured, graceful prose” that one colleague identifies in promoting the book:

My particular family history illuminates justifications for and against reparations through discussions of indemnification, the anthropology of ‘blood money,’ guilt, and responsibility embedded in the ways these approaches both do and do not shed light on my mother’s refusal to accept reparations for Auschwitz, in contrast to my maternal grandmother’s implacable pursuit of reparations from Germany, Hungary and the Ukraine for over four decades until her death in Israel in 1999 (Figures 2)” (p. 19).

As readers may suppose, this is a highly personal book.   Yet for reasons that are never entirely clear, Slyomovics gives practically no voice to her father, whose post-Communist claims to indemnities as an anti-Nazi refugee from Czechoslovakia, a combatant in the Czech exile army, and a war hero who chose to live in the Czech republic in 1998, might have been strong.   It is regretful to me, at least, that he did not join the conversation, for he almost certainly would have had something to say.  Rather, the core discussion, if that is the proper term, centers around the alternative perspectives of the author’s mother and grandmother.  Conspicuously missing, for readers seeking a comprehensive assessment, are the lawyers, jurists, public officials, political leaders, community leaders, and historical experts who have often presented strongly held critiques of the restitution process.  As well, I would have appreciated some attention to generational differences about the subject – another theme that is not pursued.  Mainly, the non-survivor commentators are those involved academic discourse.

Readers with the patience and motivation to pursue the arguments about reparation will still be rewarded, however.  Slyomovics certainly will convince them that “between perpetrator and victim (or, in neutral terms, between a bestowing agent and a recipient), reparations remain an incomplete and unstable process” (p. 236).   There are different eloquent and sincere cases to be made for on all sides of the question.  Moreover, if things weren’t complicated enough in the Slyomovics household, she extends her observations with a somewhat poorly fitting chapter considering links between her main topic with the case of postwar restitution for persecuted Algerian Jews, some general observations on settler colonialism, and a shorter discussion of Palestinians and Israelis.   Unfortunately, there is practically nothing about the other side of the reparations transactions – those doing the “bestowing ” (p.236) And because of that the book’s discussion of the reparative relationship is woefully incomplete.    In the end, the erroneously termed perpetrators – quite often, generations removed from the perpetration of the crimes – are not heard at all at the Slyomovics family seminar on reparations.  One can only imagine how noisy and disruptive the meeting would have been had they been invited to participate.

Michael R. Marrus, University of Toronto

Slyomovics, Susan. How to Accept German Reparations. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014. Read More at University of Pennsylvania Press


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