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Monday, 21 April 2014

Student fought Amsterdam bureaucrats for Holocaust justice


Charlotte Van den Berg was a 20-year-old college student working part-time in Amsterdam's city archives when she and other interns came across a shocking find: letters from Jewish Holocaust survivors saying the city was forcing them to pay back taxes and late payment fines on property seized after they were deported to Nazi death camps.

How, the survivors asked, could they be on the hook for taxes due while Hitler's regime was trying to exterminate them? A typical response was: "The base fees and the fines for late payment must be satisfied, regardless of whether a third party, legally empowered or not, has for some time held the title to the building."

Following her discovery in 2011, Van den Berg waged a lonely fight against Amsterdam's modern bureaucracy to have the travesty publicly recognized. Now, largely due to her efforts, Amsterdam officials are considering compensating Holocaust survivors for the taxes and possibly other obligations, including gas bills, they were forced to pay for homes that were occupied by Nazis or collaborators while the rightful owners were in hiding or awaiting death in the camps.
"I didn't expect any of this to happen, though I'm happy it finally did," Van den Berg told The Associated Press in an interview. "I never dreamed that compensation could be the result."
An unpublished review of those files by the Netherlands' Institute of War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies —— or NIOD —— found 217 cases in which the city demanded that returning Jews pay the taxes and penalty fees for getting behind in their payments.
In one of the letters Van den Berg found, a Jewish man asked for an extension in paying the back taxes because his home had been seized by an organization created by the Nazis in 1941 to despoil Jews of their property. Before deportation, the man was also forced to surrender his assets to the Lippmann, Rosenthal & Co. bank in Amsterdam, which transferred them to the Third Reich — leaving him with neither the house nor funds to pay for taxes on it.
"In conclusion," the man wrote, "I'm asking you in handling this matter to be led by moral considerations."
No response was found in the archives, Van den Berg said.
None of Van den Berg's colleagues or superiors had the time or inclination to take the matter further. So she took up the challenge: "My feeling was, they were too important to just let them lie there," she said. "This was an injustice that was done, not something you could just put aside and forget about."
She did further research and found there were public records on the postwar tax charges in city archives, eventually leading to 342 case files in all.
Van den Berg notified city officials about the documents and received assurances they would be fully investigated. Now and then she checked in, only to learn that nothing had been done. In March 2013, Van den Berg heard that the documents were "one signature away" from being destroyed, as other documents from the era had been. She was told that didn't matter because they had been digitized, but she felt it was important to preserve the physical evidence.
She hoped the letters would one day go on public display.
In desperation, she turned her findings over to Amsterdam newspaper Het Parool in March 2013.
The publication caused an outcry, and the city quickly commissioned a more thorough study by the NIOD to examine the documents and place them in a wider context of the city's postwar treatment of Jews. The study is due to be officially released this month.

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