By Yosef Rapaport –
Mr Abraham Biderman was recently appointed to serve as Co-chair of the World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO), which works towards obtaining restitution of Holocaust-era assets from an array of Eastern European countries.
In this interview, Mr. Biderman, who was appointed to the WJRO as a representative of Agudath Israel World Organization, speaks of his own background, some of his accomplishments in the field of Holocaust-era restitution, and what he hopes to achieve in his new post as co-chair of the WJRO.
Mr. Biderman, a son of survivors, started by speaking about his own background.
Both my parents grew up in Chasidic shtetels in Poland before the war, my father in Tomashov-Lubelsk and my mother in Biłgoraj. I was born after the war in the Displaced Persons (DP) camp in Germany, in Tempelhof, which is in Berlin. When I was a little child we came to the United States, but our original home was in the DP camp.
My father was very active in helping rebuild Jewish Institutions there and, in fact, made a siyum hashas in the camp, where he spoke passionately of what happened and how we came out of this alive. I grew up with a strong awareness of the Holocaust, because my father frequently spoke about all that he experienced throughout the war.
My family’s involvement with Agudath Israel goes back to my grandfather in Poland, who helped start the first Bais Yakov in Tomashov -Lubelsk. In fact, Sarah Schnirer stayed in my grandparents’ house for a month when she was working there, because it’s not far from Krakow.
I have been active in Agudah my entire life, I have also served in government for over 16 years, including serving as first as Finance Commissioner, and later as Housing Commissioner under Mayor Ed Koch.
Approximately 20 years ago, after Rabbi Moshe Sherer passed away, I was honored by being appointed to serve in the position he had held as Agudath Israel’s representative on the Claims Conference. The Claims Conference was formed in 1951 to negotiate with the German government to make some financial reparations for survivors. The organization was comprised of all the major Jewish groups that existed at that time, including Agudath Israel World Organization, the only orthodox member.
Agudath Israel has been represented by a number of individuals [on the board of the Claims Conference] since its inception; Dr. Isaac Lewin was first, followed by Rabbi Moshe Sherer, and then me. I was heavily involved in issues related to fund allocation. I made sure that religious institutions got their fair share.
Through Agudath Israel’s efforts, hundreds of millions of dollars have gone to religious organizations in the United States, Israel and Europe and I’ve been intensively involved in that process.
But isn’t the Claims Conference basically only about claims against the state of Germany?
The legal name is the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, Inc. These were the governments which started World War II and the Holocaust.
The other countries where most of Europe’s Jews lived —Poland, Hungary, Romania, Lithuania and Latvia – were to some degree victims of the war themselves, but these countries also ended up with many Jewish properties that were unclaimed after the war. Many Jews who survived the camps did not return to their homes both because of continuing anti-Semitism and because the Communists had taken over all of Eastern Europe.
So those properties were never returned to their proper owners. Approximately a decade ago, the World Jewish Restitution Organization formed to deal with Jewish claims for property restitution outside of Germany, both private and institutional property, such as yeshivas, shuls and cemeteries.
The WJRO comprised of major Jewish organizations, including Agudath Israel along with the World Jewish Congress, the Joint Distribution Committee, and the Jewish Agency. All are major organizations around the world that are involved in one way or another with restitution.
The Agudah has had a seat on the WJRO since its inception, but this is the first time that a member of Agudath Israel was elected as the co-chair of the organization. This gives us an opportunity to be even more effective, particularly regarding property restitution in countries like Poland, where there’s been no restitution.
There were over 3 million Jews living in Poland before the War, and almost all of them were killed. Their children were never allowed to reclaim those properties, so there are billions of dollars worth of Jewish property awaiting restitution that we have been unable to access to, except in a very, very limited way.
That’s also true in Hungary, Romania, Lithuania and Latvia, and in The Czech Republic and Slovakia (formerly Czechoslovakia). So the mission of the World Jewish Restitution Organization is to reclaim, to the largest degree possible, the properties, that were stolen, either by the Germans or the Communists, for the legitimate heirs and legitimate Jewish institutions. It is a daunting task, but also an opportunity.
We will make every effort to succeed and plan to utilize every method available to us, including moral, legal, governmental, and political pressure, to bring a measure of justice for those whose properties were taken away without compensation.
Is there resistance in the population and in the governments?
There’s resistance both by the government and the population. It varies by country. The least cooperative is Poland, which had the largest Jewish population.
Have there been any success stories?
Yes, there have been quite a few success stories. Although I can’t provide specific numbers, there’s been a fair amount of restitution from Hungary, but not enough, and a nice amount (more than in most countries) in Romania, less so in Latvia and Lithuania, and nothing in Poland.
Without discounting the success stories, we must recognize that most of the work is still ahead of us. With every passing day, there are fewer survivors, and fewer people who were directly and personally affected by the property losses. But there are still some, and even among those no longer alive, many have children and grandchildren, and there’s still an opportunity to do the right thing – it’s not too late.
If you accomplish anything regarding resources, how will you distribute the funds?
Generally speaking it’s done through legislation. In the legislation they will spell out how and to whom it’s going to be distributed. Sometimes that’s left to the WJRO, but mostly it’s spelled out in the underlying law.
We have to wait for an agreement with a government before we can talk about who’s going to get what and when.
Is there a certain style of public advocacy that is Orthodox in nature?
I think it’s really about getting along with people and organizations. People have to feel that you’re advocating with the best of intentions, not for personal profit or gain. If people see that we’re sincere and not trying to help ourselves but the community at large — that is the most effective way to gain their trust and cooperation.
What are the approaches you plan to use in dealing with those governments?
The ideal model was the one used during the Swiss bank settlement, which harnessed resources from political officials here in America. People like Dr. Israel Singer were able to bring in Senator Al D’Amato and White House officials, including President Clinton at the time, to threaten the Swiss banks that they would be restricted from doing business with the United States if they didn’t address this issue. That successful advocacy led to a settlement of over a billion dollars, which has since been fully distributed.
We need to harness some of those same political forces— both here and in Europe — to put the pressure on the appropriate governments.
Do you think the present climate of anti-Semitism in Europe will be a hindrance to your work?
Definitely, in many countries there is little public appeal to do this restoration, so the pressures will have to come from the international community. Some of these Eastern European countries are gaining economic clout and becoming more Westernized in their economies and political systems; they have to understand that this is what’s expected of a moral country, to do the right thing, even if the local population must be educated about why it’s important.
Can you expand on the advantage that having a person of your background and experience having a seat at the table? It’s a challenge for me and an honor, because it shows the confidence of the other members of the organization that appointed me. Most of them are not religious Jews, and they have never the less appointed me to this very challenging job. And I hope to do the best I can.
I have to formulate ideas as to how to best approach different governments, particularly ones that have been unwilling to do much. The most important, is, of course, Poland. We’ll work with other organizations and political parties and forces, here in America and in Europe, forming the coalitions to hopefully break through and get people back some of what they deserve.
It will take time before we can determine whether I’ve succeeded or not, but my goal is, obviously, to try to do the best I can. 100% success is not realistic, but hopefully [we’ll see] a measure of success and then we’ll be able to say, with pride, that it happened because of the efforts of the Agudath Israel World Organization.
Yosef Rapaport is a veteran journalist, and is currently with the Communications Office of Agudath Israel of America.