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Burning the Mortgage

By Dan Pulcrano

I STOPPED AT MY GRANDMOTHER'S HOUSE Sunday night, on the drive back from Los Angeles. As we talked in the living room, I could still see the face of a beautiful young woman behind creases and thick glasses. A 5-by-7 photo of grandpa, who died 20 years ago, smiled from inside a frame propped up on a dresser that was visible through the bedroom doorway.

Grandma was a pregnant 26-year-old when the Gestapo showed up on their Vienna doorstep and took grandpa to the Dachau concentration camp for six weeks. At 35, he was at the top of his game, an entrepreneur with lumber yards and rental properties and a 2-year-old girl who would two decades later bring me into the world.

Grandpa was haunted by his experiences at Dachau, and spent the last 40 years of his life screaming in the dark hours from nightmares before rising each morning to ride the subway to Lower Manhattan. There, he wholesaled fabric and rebuilt his career after losing everything but his immediate family and his education to Germany's ruling thieves and killers.

A bank account of undetermined size remained behind at the Austrian Postal Savings Bank (Postsparkassenamt). My mom recently inquired about it and received a reply from Austria's Postparkasse (PSK), the successor to Postsparkassenamt, which was seized and looted by the German Reichspost bank under the Nazi regime.

"Our independent team of historians could identify an account on behalf of your father, Emil Tennenbaum, with the number 90288," the bank confirms, and explains that the consumer-price-index-adjusted amount that remained after the plundering is 155 Austrian schillings--about $10.

While emphasizing that PSK is not legally responsible for obligations of the prewar Postal Savings Bank, the bank writes, "nonetheless we would like to offer you, in addition to the small amount of reichsmarks, a compensation for the certain costs which arose from your research and correspondence and thus want to make a total sum of $100 (U.S.) available to you."

Grandma laughs as she comes to that figure while reading me the letter in a phone call a few days later. I am glad that she can chuckle at absurdity in an ironic world. Her happy life as a newlywed and young mom was shattered in an unimaginably gruesome fashion. Now, the financial institution that inherited the brand equity and other assets of the bank in which my grandparents had placed their funds has set aside several hundred thousand dollars to pay out to claimants of 7,000 abandoned accounts as a public relations gesture, even though they believe they have no legal responsibility to do so.

"We are aware that our activities today cannot compensate in any way for all the injury and harm that both you and your family had to endure by the National Socialist tyranny," the bank writes. "However, we want you to regard this as a symbolic gesture."

The PSK official offers to "transfer the amount at no cost to you." Grandma laughs again.

"All the rent from the houses we had in that account," she tells me. "I had a house, and grandpa had a house. I had a house that was my dowry."

After the war, she says, "We asked, what happened to the rents?" What the Nazis had collected from the tenants during the war years was nowhere to be found. "We got nothing for it. The buildings were demolished. The rent money went to Germany."

Even if one forgets about the lost relatives and damaged lives, and looks at the issue from a cold business perspective, it's bad math.

Equity capital in the hands of a skilled businessman in his prime--money that could have been invested in the stock market, a venture or a home during the postwar years--arguably would have appreciated faster than the Consumer Price Index in Austria, a country with an underperforming economy that has welcomed unrepentant ex-Nazis into the highest echelons of its recent governments.

Companies that benefited even in small ways from confiscated or abandoned assets, who for 50 years built their fortunes upon the Holocaust's ashes with nary a nod to the past, ought to be taught a tangible lesson in social and corporate responsibility.

The payments won't reverse ripped-off lives or provide closure to survivors, most of whom are now gone or in their sunset years, like Holocaust survivor Michael Rendon, the subject of this week's cover story written by his son, Jim. Stories like these are being told with increasing urgency by witnesses who have remained quiet for decades.

Settlements can, however, institutionalize an ethical compass for today's captains of industry by demonstrating that there are economic costs to amoral actions.

Future generations will not experience the personal contact and oral history through which I, Jim and some of my peers have come to understand one of humanity's most profound moments. Bereft of a loved one's eye contact or nervous laugh, history is stripped of its emotional meaning. Let's at least cause some tolerable economic pain to the Holocaust's profiteers, even for publicity value alone. Let businesses understand the lessons of history in the language of capitalism.

Let them pay.

Research report on looted Postal Savings Bank accounts:

New York State Banking Department Holocaust claims resource page:

The Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany provides a complete listing of compensation funds available to survivors:

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From the March 23-29, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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