U.s., Germany Press to Meet Deadline for Slave Laborers Fund

Negotiations aimed at compensating tens of thousands of Holocaust survivors used as slave and forced laborers during World War II will have to move rapidly in order to meet a Sept. 1 deadline, Jewish representatives said at the conclusion of U.S.-led talks aimed at resolving the issue.

In what was described as a first step toward settling numerous lawsuits and other claims brought by survivors against German industrial companies accused of profiting from Nazi war crimes, the State Department played host last week to all sides in the dispute, including representatives of the companies, Jewish negotiators, lawyers for Holocaust victims and government officials from eight countries.

The United States and Germany want an agreement by Sept. 1 in time to mark the 60th anniversary of the outbreak of World War II.

“If we’re all to succeed we have to make progress very, very quickly,” said Gideon Taylor, executive vice president of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, which is negotiating on behalf of the Jewish community.

Reaching the Sept. 1 deadline is “doable, but it’s not going to be easy,” added Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress.

The parties agreed May 12 to establish two working groups, one to set rules for eligibility for payments from a compensation fund, and the other to deal with ways to assure legal closure to the German companies, said U.S. Undersecretary of State Stuart Eizenstat, who presided at the conference with Bodo Hombach, chief of staff for German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.

Eizenstat said the issues still to be resolved include determining who would benefit from the compensation fund and how the fund would be operated.

The issue of legal closure also continues to divide the lawyers and the German firms, who want assurances that a settlement will provide immunity from any future lawsuits against them.

So far, 15 German companies have pledged to set up a fund to pay reparations, initially estimated at up to $1.7 billion. Sources said the German government may make a contribution as well.

Eizenstat said the process will deal with between 70,000 and 90,000 people, mostly Jewish survivors of concentration camps, who were classified as slave laborers.

Forced laborers, many of whom were not Jewish and were forced to work in agriculture and for the Nazi state, represent a much larger category, he said.

The two-day talks, which also included representatives of Germany, Israel, Poland, Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and the Czech Republic, marked the first time that German Companies and lawyers representing slave and forced laborers have met to discuss a settlement.

Some of the lawyers left the meeting disappointed, saying that the two sides remain far apart.

Eizenstat, meanwhile, said that the participation of all sides marked a “significant accomplishment.”

“It required a great deal of hard work and flexibility,” said Eizenstat, who was nominated by President Clinton last week to serve as deputy treasury secretary. “Everybody laid their cards on the table for this historic enterprise.”

As the administration’s point man on Holocaust restitution issues, Eizenstat has played a key role in recent years in helping to provide a moral and financial accounting of various countries’ financial dealings with Nazi Germany

He will continue to carry that portfolio as he moves to the No. 2 slot at the Treasury Department.

In a brief interview, he said that continuing his role was important to him in light of the expertise he’s developed coordinating restitution issues while serving in three senior level posts in the Clinton administration.

“I think it was a combination of recognizing some of the progress we’ve made, plus my own personal interest in it,” said Eizenstat, 56, who has won universal acclaim in the Jewish community for his commitment to wartime issues.

Pending Senate confirmation, Eizenstat will succeed Lawrence Summers, whom Clinton tapped to succeed outgoing Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin.

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