Documentary - Reckonings

Nominated for the Best Documentary Award at this week's UK Jewish Film Festival, and showing tonight at Edinburgh's Everyman cinema, Tony Cross watched Reckonings...

Reckonings, written and directed by Roberta Grossman, is a documentary about the post-war negotiations between the West German government, the Israeli government and the Jewish Claims Conference. These negotiations were about providing financial recompense to the victims of the Holocaust and to Israel where hundreds of thousands of Holocaust survivors had gone in the immediate post-war period.

It was the first attempt to get a state to pay individuals compensation for what was done to them and the story of the negotiations is worth telling.

This all sounds like it will just be about money, but it isn’t. It is also about what, if any, recompense can be made on a moral level. Money, as someone points out, does not make up for the murder of 150 members of your family. Money does not – and should not - buy you forgiveness.

Indeed, there was a lot of controversy in both Germany and Israel about the whole process. In the immediate post-war period the Germans were inclined to see themselves as victims and to avoid questions of moral responsibility. They had to re-build their own country and pay debts and reparations to the nations that defeated them. And, as the documentary points out, when polling was done in Germany about who were the victims of World War Two the Jews came low on the list.

In Israel there was a moral argument and a financial one. The moral one was that if Israel took the money then was Germany buying its way out of guilt and back into the international community? The financial one was that the Israel itself was on shaky ground financially. It needed money to survive, particular post the 1948 wars. The leaders of the two countries, Konrad Adenauer in Germany and David Ben Gurion in Israel wanted it done. The debates in the Israeli Knesset were heated and close.

Then there was the question of the Jews who had not gone to Israel. Those still in displaced persons camps or who had gone elsewhere and those whose property had been stolen but who were no longer alive to receive compensation. One of the things that is overlooked by people talking about the Holocaust is that it wasn’t just an exercise in mass murder, it was also an exercise in grand theft.

The organisation that emerged to represent the Jewish diaspora was The Jewish Claims Conference. And, despite Israel’s attempts to be the only representative of the Jewish people to negotiate with the German government, the Jewish Claims Conference sent their own representatives to the talks in the Netherlands.

This film, which feels like an official history, tells the whole story – which is still ongoing – effectively. We have interviews with academics, politicians, the relatives of the politicians involved, Holocaust survivors and the 102 year-old Ben Ferencz, who is the last living member of the people who took part in those negotiations. Ben Ferencz is always an incredible vivid interviewee.

The story doesn’t over-dramatize events or make wild claims. It is, at points, moving to watch. Nor does it overstay its welcome. It’s about an hour and fifteen minutes long. But it does what you want from a documentary like this.

It also emphasises that this process is not over. That Germany needs to constant remind itself of its history and to never let the Holocaust and its part in it be forgotten. As the recent creeping acceptability of antisemitism shows this is always an ongoing process.

There’s also a lesson here perhaps for other countries who haven’t made a reckoning of their crimes against humanity.

Tony Cross watched Reckonings as part of the UK Jewish Film Festival which runs in person from 10th to 20th November, then online from 20th to 27th November. Find out more about Reckonings and all the films on offer on the Festival website.

Follow Tony on Twitter @Lokster71

Image - UKJFF

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