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Psychiatric Reparations?

It is a well-known fact that children of Holocaust survivors often suffer from a variety of psychiatric problems, ranging on the diagnostic spectrum from anxiety to severe and chronic depression. Who should pay for their treatment?

“A group representing thousands of children of Holocaust survivors filed a class-action lawsuit against the German government Monday,” reported Time today. It is “demanding that Germany pay for their psychiatric care.”

The suit calls for the German government to pay for biweekly therapy sessions for 15,000 to 20,000 people at a cost of $10 million over three years. Gideon Fisher, the attorney who filed the action in a Tel Aviv court, says this is “the very first time that the German government will be asked to take responsibility and to care for those of the second generation in Israel and indeed, worldwide.”

What are we to make of this?

Along with the 53 million lives lost in World War II, an immense amount of material damage took place; everywhere the Nazis turned, they not only killed but plundered. Since the close of the war, Germany has tried, by a variety of means, to atone for its past. Financial compensation has been a significant part of the effort.

Mixing the pursuit of material compensation with historical justice was bound to fertilize a poisonous breeding ground of anti-Semitism. Yet as ugly as the issue has sometimes become, there was more than a measure of justice in many of the victims’ claims. To its credit, Germany recognized this justice and since 1951 has paid out approximately $60 billion in reparations to the survivors of Nazi concentration camps and others who suffered losses—material, physical, and also psychological—during the war.

To be sure, Germany doled out some of this money only grudgingly. Moreover, some of it was extracted from the German government by unseemly means. But the fact remains that in attempting to atone at all, Germany has done something perhaps unprecedented in the history of war.

Should the children of the survivors, however, be similarly entitled to compensation for the cost of treatment to relieve their own psychic suffering, as the lawsuit demands? And if the children, why not the grandchildren, and so on unto the fourth or fifth generation?

My own view is that the claim is preposterous. Germany will never be able to undo the immense crimes it committed in the years 1939 to 1945. But a right to compensation cannot be handed down from generation to generation. To hold otherwise is to invite ridicule and to stoke resentment. There is only one thing in this lawsuit that is incontestable: those who filed it are in need of biweekly moral as well as psychological therapy.


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