BERLIN, Aug. 3 (JTA) — German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder has announced he will meet Sept. 6 with German industry representatives involved in creating a multibillion-dollar fund for Nazi- era slave and forced laborers. The announcement underscores the likelihood that the targeted deadline of Sept. 1 will not be met in the ongoing negotiations, which involve the 16 German firms, representatives of Holocaust survivors and government officials from the United States, Germany and several Eastern European nations. Jewish negotiators are frustrated by the delay, which was announced last week by Germany’s new representative to the talks, Otto Graf Lambsdorff. “The issue is enormously urgent,” said Gideon Taylor, executive vice president of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, who added his “disappointment that the deadline won’t be met.” But “any involvement of Chancellor Schroeder in resolving this issue can only be helpful,” he added. Industry representative Wolfgang Gibowski said the meeting with Schroeder would be “very important. It demonstrates that he is very interested in the topic.” He said Schroeder would also discuss a separate government fund for those who were forced to work for the public sector in industries ranging from agriculture to armaments under the Third Reich. But the government fund “would not take pressure off the industry fund because it was always clear that the industry initiative can only take care of those who were forced to work in the private sector,” Gibowski said. He estimated that 35 percent of forced laborers worked for the private sector. An estimated 1 million former slave laborers stand to benefit from the private-industry fund. Many more have already died. Industry representatives had hoped to conclude their talks by the symbolic date of Sept. 1, the 60th anniversary of the invasion of Poland, which marked the start of World War II. Participants now suggest the talks may conclude before the end of the year. The German companies accused of profiting from slave labor met in last week Washington with Jewish representatives in what was the latest round of meetings aimed at creating the fund. The firms sought assurances that they will not be subject to lawsuits after they agree to set up the fund, saying they would not contribute without such protection. The negotiators made important progress on this issue, sources said. The ultimate size of the fund is now one of the remaining unresolved issues. This topic will be the focus of talks beginning Aug. 24. Some have estimated the fund size at nearly $2 billion. In a related development, California Gov. Gray Davis has signed into law a bill enabling survivors of World War II-era slave and forced labor to seek restitution in state courts. The move is intended to increase pressure on the Germany companies to settle class-action litigation is would likely be moot if a settlement is reached. In California, lawsuits are already pending against the giant German construction company Phillip Holzmann and Deutsche Lufthansa, as well as General Motors and Ford Motor Company and their German affiliates. The new law will accelerate settlement negotiations in these cases and “give California greater negotiating power in order to make sure survivors are represented as aggressively as possible,” said state Sen. Tom Hayden, the bill’s author. His bill was opposed by the California Manufacturers Association, which argued that its provisions could be used against American companies whose subsidiaries were forcibly seized by the Nazi regime. In other developments, the World Jewish Congress said French banks should publish the names and amounts in 63,000 accounts that had been seized from Jews during the Nazi occupation of France. And last week in Moscow, a Swiss fund created in 1997 began making payments of $400 each to needy Russian Holocaust survivors. The first 200 recipients received their payment vouchers at a ceremony held in a Moscow synagogue. Fund officials hope to reach a total of some 2,500 Jewish and non-Jewish survivors in Russia. (JTA correspondent Tom Tugend in Los Angeles and staff writer Daniel Kurtzman in Washington also contributed to this report.)
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