20 November 2015

‘Municipality demanded ground lease fees from returned Jews’ was the alarming headline of an article printed in the Dutch newspaper Het Parool on 30 March 2013. This article reported how, after the war, the municipality of Amsterdam had imposed ground lease fees on Jewish victims of war, and had fined them for not paying the fees during the war years. How was it possible, the newspaper asked, that Jewish homeowners or their surviving relatives, who had lost all of their possessions during the war, were not only held liable, but were also fined for arrears in payment incurred through no fault of their own? The municipality of Amsterdam commissioned the NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies to look into the ground lease issue.

In March 2004 the NIOD presented its (preliminary) findings in the report ‘De erfpachtkwestie in Amsterdam (1945-1960) [The ground rent issue in Amsterdam]’. As a result of this report, the local administration proposed the municipal council of Amsterdam to restitute the amount of the fines levied in the past to the ‘individualised surviving relatives’. This proposal was accepted by the municipal council in September 2014. Also, the green light was given for follow-up research that places the ground lease issue in a broader historical and societal context. Openstaande rekeningen. De gemeente Amsterdam en de gevolgen van roof en rechtsherstel, 1940-1950 [Unpaid debts. The city of Amsterdam and the consequences of spoliation and restoration of rights, 1940-1950] is the result of this follow-up study.

During World War II the houses owned by Jews were put under administration in the context of the anti-Jewish measures, and in many cases sold to ‘Aryan’ Dutchmen. As a result of increasing economic disruption and the massive flight in September 1944 (‘Mad Tuesday’) of Dutch National Socialists and collaborators (including wartime administrators and wartime buyers), there were many unpaid bills when the war ended. The city of Amsterdam chose to burden the original owners or their surviving relatives with these financial damages. This concerned ground rent as well as municipal taxes (street cleaning and maintenance tax, and fire insurance tax).

In addition, the municipality of Amsterdam levied a fine for late payment of ground rent. In retrospect this fine is incomprehensible, particularly because the imposition of this punitive measure went against the advice of the city advocate. He pointed out the option of applying the principle of force majeure to the obligation to pay, and considered this an argument to relinquish imposing the fine. The municipality deliberately ignored his advice, which can only be qualified as unnecessary harshness towards the Jewish leaseholders who had been deprived of their property during the war.

With the exception of the imposition of a fine for late payment of ground rent the collection policy of the city of Amsterdam regarding unpaid wartime bills did not differ substantially from the policies of other municipalities that this study investigated. Following the national government, the local authorities were of the opinion that the damage done to the Jewish community had not been caused by the Dutch authorities, but by the German occupier. In addition, the local authorities referred to the Dutch restoration of rights legislation, which stipulated that all anti-Jewish measures after the liberation in 1945 were declared invalid with retroactive effect. This meant that Jewish homeowners had formally remained owners, also during the occupation.

Whereas in Amsterdam it primarily was the fine on the unpaid ground rent that led to protests, in The Hague the outrage mainly concerned the street cleaning and maintenance tax. The recovery policy led to legal proceedings that were taken all the way up to the Supreme Court of the Netherlands. However, despite the protests the policy was never reconsidered. Several reasons for this can be identified.

  1. The municipalities did not feel responsible for the financial damage that resulted from the dispossession of the Jews during World War II.
  2. Both Amsterdam and The Hague had severe budget deficits to deal with, as a result of which their policies were determined by financial-economic considerations. The consequences of the deportations of Jews were discussed within the framework of the municipal treasury.
  3. The national measures that were taken to end the dispossession (i.e. the Dutch restoration of rights legislation) were subordinate to domestic economic recovery, and more importance was attached to the collective than to the individual. The local authorities generally followed this national policy.
  4. There was no broad societal debate to hinder municipalities in the execution of their collection policy. The outrage about the imposed levies did not spread beyond the walls of municipal halls, lawyer’s offices and courts.
  5. The Jewish war victims were hesitant about voicing their outrage. The communis opinio of the time was that they should be thankful they survived the war. The Jewish community was acutely aware that any public expression of criticism might backfire.

This is not to say there were no doubts or discussions about this policy. However, both the national and the local authorities felt justified by the conviction that the Dutch administration was not responsible for the damage done to the Jewish community, and by the nationally supported rebuilding ethos with its emphasis on the collective. Just like the Dutch national government decided not to differentiate in how Jewish and non-Jewish victims of war were received, the local authorities made no special provisions for the disproportionately affected Jewish population.