BERLIN — It was 1943 and the Nazis were deporting Greece’s Jews to death camps in Poland. Hitler’s genocidal accountants reserved a chilling twist: The Jews had to pay their train fare.
The bill for 58,585 Jews sent to Auschwitz and other camps exceeded 2 million Reichsmark — more than 25 million euros ($27 million) in today’s money.
For decades, this was a forgotten footnote among all of the greater horrors of the Holocaust. Today it is returning to the fore amid the increasingly bitter row between Athens and Berlin over the Greek financial bailout.
Jewish leaders in Thessaloniki, home to Greece’s largest Jewish community, say they are considering how to reclaim the rail fares from Germany — with seven decades of interest.
“We will study the law and do our best to claim,” the community’s president, David Saltiel, told The Associated Press.
Such a move would suit the new government in Athens, which is trying to shift the public focus from Greece’s current debt crisis to Germany’s World War II debts ahead of Monday’s first visit to Berlin by Greece’s new Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras.
While war reparations have been a staple demand of previous Greek governments, Tsipras’ radical left government has made the issue a central part of the bailout negotiations with Germany. The Germans have dismissed such demands, saying compensation issues were settled decades ago in post-war accords.
Billions of euros in rescue loans from other European countries and the International Monetary Fund have saved Greece from bankruptcy since 2010. Germany, the largest contributor to the bailout, has been vocal in pressing Greece to cut back on government spending to bring its finances under control.
But the Greeks point out that, following its wartime defeat, Germany received one of the biggest bailouts in modern history within a decade of laying waste to much of Europe. Greece was among 22 countries that agreed to halve Germany’s foreign debt at a 1953 conference in London.
Even some German politicians have called for a change of heart on the reparations issue. They argue that if Germany doesn’t confront its World War II guilt, it cannot expect other countries to repay their more recent debts. The point has particular resonance in Germany because, in German, guilt and debt are the same word: Schuld.
Among the claims that Greece, or individual Greeks, might bring against Germany:
- Tens, possibly hundreds, of billions of euros (dollars) in present-day money as compensation for destroyed infrastructure and goods, including archaeological treasures, looted by the Nazis from 1941 to 1944.
- Compensation for the estimated 300,000 people who died from famine during the winter of 1941-1942.
- Compensation for the slaughter of civilians as reprisals for partisan attacks. One of the most infamous massacres took place in the Greek village of Distomo on June 10, 1944, when Waffen-SS soldiers killed more than 200 women, children and elderly residents. Another in Kalavryta in December 1943 involved German troops killing more than 500 civilians, including virtually all of the town’s males aged 14 or over.
- Repayment of some 1.9 billion drachmas, around 50 million euros ($55 million) today, that the Jewish community paid as ransom to occupying authorities in 1942 in return for 10,000 Jewish men being held as slave laborers. The men were released only to be sent to concentration camps the following year.
- Repayment of an interest-free loan of 568 million Reichsmark (7.1 billion euros or $7.7 billion) that the Nazis forced Greece to make to Germany in 1942.
- Returning the train fares that the Reichsbahn received for transporting Jews to their deaths. Historians disagree on whether the tickets were bought directly by Jews or paid by a special Nazi fund established with money stolen from Jews. They broadly agree that the money came from Holocaust victims.
Previous efforts to bring claims against Germany have ended in legal quagmires.
In 2011 the European Court of Human Rights dismissed a lawsuit brought by four survivors of the Distomo massacre. The judges in Strasbourg, France, concluded that a German court hadn’t discriminated against the plaintiffs when it rejected their claim on the basis that states can’t be sued by individuals.
Germany insists that the 1942 loan should be considered part of the overall reparations issue. German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman, Steffen Seibert, says that liability has been “comprehensively and conclusively resolved.”
But a confidential legal assessment provided to the German parliament concluded that Berlin’s liability wasn’t so clear-cut. A Munich historian, Hans Guenter Hockerts, says the Greeks shouldn’t be confident of winning any of their claims, but are on firmest ground in demanding repayment of the 1942 loan.
Even the Nazis felt bound by terms of that loan and paid back two installments before their occupation of Greece ended. The unpaid 476 million Reichsmark would be equivalent to at least 6 billion euros ($6.5 billion) today.
That figure dwarfs the war reparations actually paid by Germany since 1945, which include:
- $25 million in goods shortly after the war; Greece says the proper sum should have been nearer $14 billion.
- 115 million Deutschmarks — equivalent to about $330 million today — as part of a 1960 treaty with Greece meant to compensate victims of Nazi atrocities, including Greek Jews.
- 13.5 million euros (about $15 million) paid to former slave laborers from a fund established in 2000 by German companies and the government.
- 1 million euros ($1.1 million) paid annually for a “German-Greek future foundation” meant to fund remembrance and historical research projects.
Gesine Schwan, who twice ran for president as the candidate of Germany’s center-left Social Democrats, says the government’s stance on new reparations payments is damaging Germany’s image in Europe.
“It’s embarrassing if rich Germany demands that poor Greece … pay back debt,” Schwan wrote in a newspaper column, “but isn’t prepared even to discuss repayment of a forced loan that Nazi Germany took from Greece during the war.”