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Germany criticized for dragging feet as deadline for slave labor talks looms

BERLIN, July 20 (JTA) — Jewish leaders here are charging the German government with dragging its feet in talks over compensation for Nazi-era slave laborers. They charge that Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder threw a wrench into negotiations between German companies and representatives of Holocaust survivors over a multibillion-dollar compensation fund when he removed experienced German negotiator Bodo Hombach from the talks. The two sides have been racing to achieve a settlement by a symbolically important Sept. 1 deadline, which marks the 60th anniversary of the start of World War II. While Jewish and German negotiators struggle to reach an agreement, progress has been made on another front concerning restitution for Holocaust survivors. The Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany last week agreed that survivors who missed a 1992 deadline for filing claims to recover property nationalized by Germany would still be able to recover the bulk of their assets. The move will likely affect nearly 2,000 Jewish heirs to property in the former East Germany with claims that could reach into the millions of dollars. On the slave labor issue, three days of talks in New York and Washington last week helped narrow differences, but officials said key sticking points remain on the question of how to compensate survivors who were among millions of people taken by force to work for German firms during World War II. Only a small fraction of those former slave laborers are still living today. Stuart Eizenstat, deputy secretary of the U.S. Treasury, who has been mediating the talks, told reporters last week that progress had been made on the issue of bringing legal closure to the companies and protecting them against future lawsuits, but differences remained over who would be eligible for payments and the ultimate amount of the fund. Still, Eizenstat, the Clinton administration’s point man on Holocaust restitution issues, said the talks had created a “significant amount of momentum,” and that he was “cautiously optimistic” the Sept. 1 deadline could be met. Others have suggested that will be difficult. “Everyone involved has to work very, very quickly” in order to meet the deadline, said Gideon Taylor, executive vice president of the Claims Conference, which has been negotiating on behalf of the Jewish community. On the slave labor issue, Jewish officials said the absence of Hombach, who was recently tapped to serve as European Union coordinator for the Balkans stability pact, comes as a serious blow in light of the trust the Jewish side felt for him. Schroeder appointed government legal adviser Gerd Westdickenberg to fill Hombach’s role in Washington last week, but it remained unclear whether he would be a permanent replacement. Ignatz Bubis, president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, suggested that Schroeder may be “supporting hurdles that have been erected” against progress in the discussions. Bubis’ words were echoed by council board member Michel Friedman, who told the Berlin Tagespiegel it was “a catastrophe” that no breakthrough had yet been achieved. Chief among their worries is that Westdickenberg, who heads the government’s international legal department, is not as close to Schroeder as his predecessor, and therefore carries less influence. Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress, called Hombach’s reassignment a “major blow “and “one that the German government is going to have to overcome.” A German government observer at the talks acknowledged “there is great public pressure” on Schroeder to permanently replace Hombach, but he said the chancellor he had not yet made a decision. The next negotiating session is scheduled for later this month in Bonn. Meanwhile, the action taken by the Claims Conference on the return of property nationalized by Germany ensures that Holocaust survivors who failed to put forward claims by 1992 under the Germany Property Restitution Law can still recover most of their assets. The claims process stems from the reunification of Germany, when German officials agreed to return to Jewish families property in eastern Germany that had been seized or forcibly sold during the Holocaust era. But for rightful heirs who missed the 1992 deadline, which was set by Germany, the Claims Conference later set an extended Dec. 31, 1998, deadline for claims to be submitted. Some 2,000 potential heirs responded following a massive advertising campaign. Those heirs must now seek payment directly from the Claims Conference, which, in most cases, put forward its own claims in 1992 to what it believed was heirless Jewish property. Conference officials said it has allocated some of the proceeds from those property sales, in excess of $250 million, to needy Holocaust survivors around the world. Had the conference not submitted its own claims by the 1992 deadline, the property would have remained with Germany, conference officials said. Since receiving the additional claims, the conference has been debating what percentage of the returned property those heirs should receive from a “Goodwill Fund” set up for their benefit. Last week, the group’s board of directors agreed to allocate to heirs 80 percent of the net proceeds from the property sales. The decision came after some heirs criticized the group for its previous policy to give about half the value of their property. The remaining 20 percent will be retained by the Claims Conference to offset the costs of researching and processing the claims and for general allocations to needy Holocaust survivors, conference officials said. (JTA Washington correspondent Daniel Kurtzman contributed to this report.)

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