From the moment I read the title, I was captured by this story: German company pays Jewish family for Nazi-era confiscation.
It’s the latest in a long line of recompensatory activity in former Nazi Germany. And just think about the words of the headline without even reading the story. Don’t you get this sense of relief, this sense of release, this sense that some great wrong has been made right? Don’t you get a sense of restoration and restitution, even vindication and justification for those who were wronged?
It’s so simple, so pure, so right.
Dig into the story a bit and here’s what you find. “
And now as more details are given, doesn’t something wake up and begin stirring inside you? Make you want to know more, and to start analyzing the facts? Whoa. Largest retailer? Ritz-Carlton? Marriott? Luxury apartments and offices? Is $120 Million enough? How many heirs is it split among? What have they endured? Why couldn’t you just give it back to them if it was confiscated?
Less simple, less pure, less right.
Dig a little deeper and you find that the case has been going on for over 15 years, filled with difficulties and drama, advances and setbacks for both sides, executed with “often bitter legal maneuvering”. Of course, the Wertheim heirs and those representing them are thrilled and proud. A very pleased Barbara Principe, the 74 year old granddaughter of the original property owner, said this proves “the Nazis are gone”, and even the new CEO of the company who is paying said, “We are leaving the dark, horrifying past behind us”. So why did it take 15 years? Are the Nazis only just now routed? Or do some things like this just take a lot of energy and time to sort out?
One of the interesting things is that the property wasn’t actually “confiscated” per se. It was “lost” in the late 1930s when the Nazis began taking the rights to own property away from Jews and others who couldn’t boast an “Aryan” pedigree. So, Grandpa Wertheim, in order to keep from having his property confiscated actually sold it to one Arthur Lindgens. Sold it for some absurdly small amount of money. But sold it nonetheless. And took up a new line of work as a chicken herder. In
Even less simple, even less pure, even less right.
And because our quest for what’s right gets more and more complicated the more we dig into it, someone has to make a final judgment. Someone has to sit atop things, and try to untangle them, to figure out what is right, and what is wrong. Who could do this? How would it be done? Deep cuts are required. And the more time that passes the deeper the cuts, the worse the tangles.
More tangles: When Lindgens “bought” Wertheim, he merged it into another formerly Jewish-owned company he bought (in a similar way) called Hertie. More tangles: When World War II was ended and East and
Simple? Pure? Right?
It kind of makes your head spin.
Like, where’s the rewind button?
So the news yesterday was that this was finally settled. The two parties agreed that the right thing to do was for the German company to pay the family roughly market price minus 30%. This was possible because the German company’s new CEO, Thomas Middelhoff, urged everyone to negotiate in good faith. “Of course, they asked for more. Of course, we offered less. This is typical in these cases.” It was because of his leadership that any settlement was reached after 15 years of this thing being “logjammed”.
They made a compromise.
They had to.
Doing the right thing always ends up being a compromise.
Some people speak about doing the right thing as if it’s a black and white proposition. Some people talk about the biblical phrase “rightly dividing the word of truth” as if it is something very clear cut. It is anything but.
The Wertheim situation is a bizarre and complicated one, but it’s far from exceptional. People live in situations at least as complicated as this every day. And some of them are trying to determine what is right. Much to their distress.
What is right always ends up being a compromise.
For a short time I lived in the fringes of some really destructive teaching by a man named Bill Gothard. A lot of what he said seemed so reasonable, so logical, seemed to explain so much of why some people get into bad situations, and why others are always happy and blessed. One of his ideas is that divorce is always wrong, and remarriage is right out, except if it’s with the original spouse, which is what he says you’re required to do. Or else stay single for the rest of your life. This, to him, is what is right and what is wrong. It, to him, is black and white.
And so some very distressed people have come to me asking what they should do now that they’re divorced and haven’t spoken to their ex in a decade. Gothard would say it’s simple. Go back and remarry. It’s the right thing to do. It’s black and white. Really? What if I’m remarried? Do I divorce my loving husband? What if the first husband has remarried? Twice? With two children? Each by different women? And how does it work when he was the first husband to all three of us, but none of us were his first wife? Who do I tell all these other people to go back to? What is the right thing to do? And how do I untangle all this?
The right thing will end up being a compromise no matter what.
It will always be a compromise because there is simply no way of going back far enough to where the tangles all began. Some cutting will be required. Ever since humanity fell, every single situation has been tangled. Every one. There is simply no hope anymore for any of us to do what is absolutely right, to truly live in black and white.
So Jesus (without asking Bill Gothard’s approval) says, “unless your rightness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”
But there was simply no way to surpass the rightness of the Pharisees and teachers of the law going about it the way they were going about it. Going about it the way most people today go about it, including most of the church. There is only one righteousness that surpasses, and it does not depend on doing the right thing.
Those who know me know that I am against doing the right thing. Categorically. It’s a bad way to live, and an unworkable life. In fact, it’s no life at all. And it can suck the life out of those who have it if they get too close to it.
There is a book on my shelf called, How to do everything right and live to regret it. Not a great book, but a great title. I’d like to remove all its pages and replace them with some things that have been simmering in my heart for a long time, and God willing I will do something much like that.
In the end, it is a very good thing this German company, KarstadtQuelle, has done (even if they required the help of tenacious folks over at the Jewish Claims Conference). The world is better because this happened yesterday. Humanity is better. And it suggests that at least some have it within us to do good and pleasing things, even when it is truly impossible to do the right thing.