A major German company cooperates with the Third Reich during World War II. Years later, it apologizes for its actions and makes reparation payments to Holocaust survivors. The firm is honored in the United States by the Jewish community.
Another major German company cooperates with the Third Reich. It also apologizes and makes reparation payments. In an attempt to strengthen its public image in the U.S., it bids to put its name on a prominent football stadium. The firm is heavily criticized here by the Jewish community.
The difference between the honor for the Bertelsmann publishing conglomerate and the chorus of boos against Allianz, the German insurance giant that wanted its name in lights on the new Giants-Jets stadium in the Meadowlands, may be as simple as the old adage about the key ingredient for a successful business: location, location, location.
But on the eve of the High Holy Days, whose major spiritual themes are repentance and forgiveness, the stadium-naming rights controversy gives fresh urgency to thorny — and long unresolved — questions in the Jewish community: How many acts of teshuvah, or repentance, are enough for a German company? When is the time to forgive and forget sins committed during the Holocaust? And who decides? And the controversy highlights the internal debate in the Jewish community over approaches to Holocaust memory, with some Jews saying it’s too early to forgive and forget while others say it’s time to move on.
The Allianz controversy also points to shifting concerns for survivors’ feelings in different circumstances. The stadium-naming issue led to swift denunciations from Jewish leaders, yet most mainstream defense agencies like the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee have opposed a bill introduced by Florida’s Rep. Robert Wexler that would give individual survivors the right to sue European insurance companies as part of an overall settlement over wartime claims.
“For us, the Holocaust was yesterday,” says Rabbi Jay Rosenbaum, secretary general of the North American Boards of Rabbis. “There is never a statute of limitations” on forgetting. “Only the victims and the survivors have a right to forgive. We must never forget.”
Allianz, a Munich-based insurance company, negotiated recently to buy the naming rights, at a cost of an estimated $20 million to $30 million, for the stadium that is set to open in 2010.
After a deal seemed likely, the two teams announced last week that they had ended talks with Allianz.
“In America, sports are an icon,” says Abraham Foxman, national director of the ADL. “To put [Allianz’s] name on an icon would be inappropriate. Putting the name on a stadium would indicate that everything” — the company’s history of insuring Auschwitz and other Nazi concentration camps during the war, withholding for years proceeds from life insurance policies owned by Jews before the war and granting the proceeds to the Third Reich — “is forgotten.”
But lost in the recriminations were other, more nuanced voices.
“There is a third way,” says Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, co-president of the New York-based CLAL – the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership: encourage a company like Allianz to name a stadium for itself, as part of a wider rehabilitation effort.
He says the “polarizing trends” — never forget the Holocaust-era sins, or forgive and forget after so many years — overlook another choice: allow the men and women who lead such companies as Allianz to “re-brand” themselves as representatives of a new, repentant, generation.
Allianz’s identification on a high-visibility site like a football stadium could be part of an initiative of good works and civic altruism, Rabbi Hirschfield says.
“Perhaps the Allianz name in lights for generations is just what we need,” the rabbi writes on the Beliefnet Web site. “If this company, which dates to the 1890s, damaged its own reputation by acting badly for a decade, it might be able to rehabilitate itself by public association with some positive for an even longer period of time … this moment presents a real opportunity to see how a company might re-brand itself after a problematic past.”
“We believe in re-branding — that’s what Yom Kippur is all about,” he says. “Teshuvah is a process. It’s not an act.”
A surprising, conciliatory opinion comes from a rabbi in Germany. “At some point,” says Rabbi Walter Rothschild, a native of England who has worked in Germany for a decade and drives a Mercedes, “someone has to say that the bastards [behind the Final Solution] are all dead now.” There is, says the rabbi, a statute of limitations on guilt. “At some point, Americans will have to pay Mexico back for Texas. How far back do you go?”
Comparing Bertelsmann and Allianz is like “apples and oranges,” says Foxman, a Holocaust survivor. “It’s a matter of degree.” German firms that supported their country’s Nazi government — Bertelsmann, for example, was the largest supplier of books to the German Army, many of them with anti-Semitic themes — are not to be shunned, are not to be boycotted, are not to be treated as pariahs today. But they are not to be treated as normal corporate citizens; i.e., no to “putting your name in lights; yes to working with Jewish organization on bias-reduction programs; yes to being honored by Jewish organizations.”
The ADL’s chapter in Atlanta nine years ago honored the Bertelsmann Foundation, which is affiliated with the publishers, and New York’s UJA-Federation honored Bertelsmann’s chief executive at a benefit dinner seven years ago.
“How long do you carry this [pre-eminence of Holocaust memory] on?” philanthropist Laurence Tisch, co-chairman of the Loews Corporation, was quoted by The New York Times as saying regarding the UJA-Federation choice of honorees. “It’s been 50, 60 years. You don’t want to forget, but at some point, you do want some closure.”
“Bertelsmann,” said Foxman, “for the last 40 years has done yeoman’s work” to improve relations between Germans and Jews.
Would he oppose Bertelsmann putting its name on a sports stadium?
Allianz, which in recent weeks defended its postwar record by stressing its statements of contrition for its role in the Holocaust, and its payments of $12 million in compensation to prewar policyholders and slave laborers, is the latest name on the list of firms and countries working to cleanse their historical record and collective conscience. The list includes Ford Motor, whose founder was an outspoken anti-Semite in the early 20th century; such Nazi-era German companies as Volkswagen and Mercedes-Benz and BMW; participants in the Arab trade boycott of Israel like L’Oreal cosmetics; and, the most egregious perpetrator of evil in the last century, the German government.
All have worked, with various degrees of success, to rehabilitate their image by reaching out to the organized Jewish community, to the State of Israel and often to survivors of the Shoah.
Attorney and social critic Thane Rosenbaum says that Allianz should make a similar outreach effort to the Jewish community. “I’d tell them that in addition to putting your name on the stadium, build a Holocaust memorial next door and write checks to Holocaust education,” he told The New York Times.
The placement of a company’s name on a sports stadium “is bragging rights … putting their name beyond the product,” Foxman says. “Allianz Stadium” would mark the firm as a corporate good citizen, a Gillette or Heinz or FedEx untainted by a dark past. Allianz has not earned that right, Foxman says. “Have they atoned? Yes. But not to the point where they can achieve normalcy. Teshuvah does not buy normalcy.”
Foxman likens the Allianz controversy to German Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s invitation to President Ronald Reagan to take part in a memorial ceremony in 1985 at a cemetery at Bitburg where members of the SS were buried. The ceremony was designed as an act of reconciliation 40 years after the end of WWII. “What Kohl wanted to achieve was normalcy,” Foxman says.
“You never forget. You forgive; you never achieve normalcy,” he says.
The ADL, which drew criticism from survivors for taking a position against the Wexler bill in the House of Representatives (Foxman says the ability of survivors to keep making claims against European insurance companies would preclude a general settlement), also was criticized three years ago for honoring Sir Lindsay Owen-Jones, chairman of L’Oreal, which had admitted its participation in the trade boycott of Israel a decade earlier.
“L’Oreal didn’t engage in killing anybody,” Foxman says. “They atoned” for their participation in the boycott.
“I don’t see where Allianz has done teshuvah,” says Menachem Rosensaft, an attorney and leader of the Second Generation movement of children of Holocaust survivors. “They have done what they were [legally] required to do, but that doesn’t come to the level of teshuvah.”
If Allianz’s teshuvah is sincere, Rosensaft says, “they should use the $20 million or $30 million” the firm would have paid for the stadium naming rights “to provide much needed health care to Holocaust survivors.”
Allianz, says Jonathan Sarna, professor of Jewish history at Brandeis University, “is not unique.” The Jewish outrage over the prospect of the company’s name dominating the stadium’s exterior reflects a philosophical difference between Jewish and wider societal values, he says.
“Within the larger community, there is a very strong sense of the value of ‘forgive and forget,’” Sarna says. “Christians often use the language of turning the other cheek.”
Judaism demands a higher level of repentance. Forgiveness, both divine and human, part of the High Holy Days tradition, comes only after sincere declarations of regret and acts of recompense.
Take Ford Motor.
Henry Ford bankrolled The Dearborn Independent newspaper, and the book “The International Jew,” which depicted Jews as avaricious conspirators against the public interest. Under pressure, Ford eventually apologized, his firm opened up a factory in Israel, and it supported Jewish causes, such as sponsorship of the television broadcasts of Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List.”
“The boycott of Ford” by Jewish car buyers “went on for several decades,” Sarna says. “Ford all these many years later knows that history lingers. To this day, the Ford company is very sensitive” to Jewish concerns. “All these years later they’re still trying to prove they are good people.”
More than six decades after the end of the Holocaust, how many uncounted Jews still refuse to buy German products or to set foot in Germany?
This, despite the payment of billions of dollars in reparation payments to Israel and individual survivors by West Germany and the current German government, and reparation payments by Mercedes.
Who decides when — and how — it is time to forgive?
“The victims and their descendants need to be consulted,” Thane Rosenbaum says.
Half a year before the High Holy Days comes Passover — the pre-eminent Jewish holiday of remembrance. The annual seder recounts the slavery that ended in Egypt 3,300 years ago.
A matter of several decades probably is not enough time for many Jews to forget what happened to them, Sarna says. “The Jewish community has a long historical memory. We wouldn’t be around if we didn’t have long memories.”