AMSTERDAM – 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 complaining that 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An unpublished review of those files by the Netherlands' Institute of War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies – or NIOD – found 217 cases in which the city demanded that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.
Two Dutch newspapers, Het Parool and De Telegraaf, have received leaked copies of the report and published its conclusions. The report found that the city's top lawyer advised politicians of the time not to enforce the fines, but the recommendation was rejected. Politicians worried granting one claim might lead to more.
"The city made a conscious decision to reject this advice, which cannot be described otherwise than as a totally needless callousness toward (Jews) who had their property taken during the war," De Telegraaf quoted the report as saying.
Amsterdam's official ruling of Sept. 12, 1947, a public document viewed by the AP, was that "the city has the right to full payment of fees and fines" and that most excuses – including that property had been seized by the Nazis – were invalid.
Ronny Nafthaniel – a leader of the Dutch Jewish community who sat on a vetting panel for the NIOD report and has reviewed a copy – said the papers' reporting is accurate. Spokespeople for the NIOD and the city declined to comment on the findings ahead of a statement planned next week.
Nafthaniel said many of the homes were sold to Dutch collaborators who left the bills unpaid and fled at the end of the war.
"Another thing that happened, and this is almost too sad to relate, is that Jews got back from Auschwitz – and then got an invoice for the gas that had been used in their homes," Nafthaniel said.
The Netherlands deported a relatively high percentage of its Jews during the Nazi occupation of 1940-1945 compared to other European countries, in part because of its efficient bureaucracy. An estimated 110,000 Dutch Jews died in the Holocaust, including teenage diarist Anne Frank. Around 30,000 survived the war, many later emigrating to Israel.
The Institute report recommends that the city now pay survivors or their families $6.7 million: 400,000 euros for the fines and 4.5 million euros for the back tax payments on homes they were unable to use while in hiding or incarcerated at German camps.
However, these are only for one type of housing tax, specifically fees for long-term leases when the city owns the ground a house is built on. Nafthaniel said there were numerous other categories of unfair charges – such as the retroactive gas bills – but remaining records may be too spotty to do anything about those. There is also a major unanswered question about whether Jews who paid the back taxes and fees without filing a formal complaint should also be reimbursed.
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 der 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, partly leaked by the newspapers, is due to be officially released this month.
Nafthaniel said other painful revelations have come to light during the investigation, such as a chain of letters during the occupation where Amsterdam city officials complained that the "dog tax" revenue had plummeted, and demanded compensation from German authorities.
They never mentioned the reason for the decline in revenues: the dogs' Jewish owners had been deported.
Naftaniel praised Van den Berg's role in uncovering the documents.
"She is absolutely a hero" he said. "She pushed her bosses and all the civil servants around her to open up these files, even when they told her not to bother."
Story written by Toby Sterling.