In response to calls from Jewish organizations and the State of Israel, in September 1951 Chancellor Konrad Adenauer of West Germany addressed his Parliament:
“…unspeakable crimes have been committed in the name of the German people, calling for moral and material indemnity… The Federal Government are prepared, jointly with representatives of Jewry and the State of Israel…to bring about a solution of the material indemnity problem, thus easing the way to the spiritual settlement of infinite suffering.”
One month after Adenauer’s speech, Dr. Nahum Goldmann, co-chairman of the Jewish Agency and president of the World Jewish Congress, convened a meeting in New York City of 23 major Jewish national and international organizations. The participants made clear that these talks were to be limited to discussion of material claims, and thus the organization that emerged from the meeting was called the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany—the Claims Conference. The Board of Directors of the new Conference consisted of groups that took part in its formation, with each member agency designating two members to the Board.
The Claims Conference had the task of negotiating with the German government a program of indemnification for the material damages to Jewish individuals and to the Jewish people caused by Germany through the Holocaust.
On September 10, 1952, after six months of negotiations, the Claims Conference and the West German federal government signed an agreement embodied in two protocols. Protocol No. 1 called for the enactment of laws that would compensate Nazi victims directly for indemnification and restitution claims arising from Nazi persecution. Under Protocol No. 2, the West German government provided the Claims Conference with DM 450 million for the relief, rehabilitation and resettlement of Jewish victims of Nazi persecution, according to the urgency of their need as determined by the Conference. Agreements were also signed with the State of Israel.
The agreements were at the time unique in human history. All three entities involved—the Claims Conference, West Germany, and Israel—had not existed at the time of World War II, and yet all entered into an agreement for compensation for crimes committed during that time.
Noting the historic import of these agreements, David Ben-Gurion said in a 1952 letter to the founder and first president, Dr. Nahum Goldmann, “For the first time in the history of the Jewish people, oppressed and plundered for hundreds of years…the oppressor and plunderer has had to hand back some of the spoil and pay collective compensation for part of the material losses.”
At the time, the Claims Conference concentrated on aiding Holocaust survivors through a wide variety of social service agencies and on rebuilding the Jewish communities of Europe. Operating as a non-political and non-partisan body, it undertook some 500 capital projects in 29 countries aimed at strengthening communities and maintaining their cohesion and independence. Also, despite many political obstacles, the Claims Conference allocated significant funds to benefit Holocaust survivors living behind the Iron Curtain, who were not able to apply for individual compensation payments.
Following the agreements, the Claims Conference continued to negotiate with the German government for amendments to the various legislative commitments contained in Protocol No. 1, and monitored the implementation of the various compensation and restitution laws.
The German government has expended more than $60 billion in satisfaction of claims under the law negotiated by the Claims Conference. In all, more than 278,000 survivors received lifetime pensions under the German Federal Indemnification Laws (Bundesentschädigungsgesetz–BEG), with tens of thousands of these survivors continuing to receive pensions. Hundreds of thousands more received one-time payments under German compensation laws.
The agreement was the first of more than 25 attained by the Claims Conference in order to obtain a small measure of justice for Jewish victims of Nazi persecution around the world.