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Jewish groups criticize as ‘pittance’ German offer to former slave laborers

WASHINGTON, Oct. 10 (JTA) – After months of painstaking deliberations aimed at creating a compensation fund for Nazi-era slave and forced laborers, German and Jewish negotiators are finally talking numbers. The two sides, however, remain billions of dollars apart. Germany’s largest companies and the German government last week offered $3.3 billion to settle the claims of hundreds of thousands of workers, including Holocaust survivors, who were forced to toil in factories and on farms to help fuel the Nazi war machine. Representatives of Holocaust survivors blasted the offer as “shameful” and “a pittance.” “This is nothing but an attempt to get rid of a problem cheaply,” said Mel Weiss, a class-action lawyer representing survivors. “It’s being treated by them as nothing but a business proposition.” Lawyers for the plaintiffs have previously called on the companies to pay more than $20 billion. They said the German offer was particularly insulting because, in terms of the dollar’s value during World War II, it translates into only a few hundred dollars for each victim. Jewish negotiators were also taken aback because they were led to believe the initial figure would be higher – between $3.8 billion and $4.4 billion, one source said. “We’re disappointed,” said Gideon Taylor, executive director of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, which has been negotiating on behalf of the Jewish community. “People have to get paid, people need help. The survivors are dying, and we’ve got to finish this thing quickly.” German representatives defended their offer, which was put on the table during talks Oct. 7 at the State Department, saying it was final. “This is about a lot of money,” Wolfgang Gibowski, a spokesman representing German companies such as Deutsche Bank, DaimlerChrysler, Siemens and Volkswagen, told reporters. “There won’t be more, and that’s it.” Otto Lambsdorff, the German government’s representative at the talks, said the offer was a “substantive sum,” particularly in light of budgetary constraints of the German government, which is putting up one-third of the fund. But he acknowledged that the money “is not enough to help all those who feel they suffered during that period.” U.S. Deputy Treasury Secretary Stuart Eizenstat, who has been mediating the talks, said both sides need to show “greater flexibility” in order to reach an agreement. He added that the German offer “represents a basis for serious discussion.” Talks are slated to continue next month in Bonn, and officials are now setting their sights on reaching an agreement by the end of the year, with payments to begin in early 2000. The lawyers have agreed to remain at the negotiation table, despite a prior threat to walk out if the Germans put forth an inadequate proposal. At the same time, they have made clear they are prepared to pursue payment through other avenues. “We’re going to have to continue to fight them in the courts and in the arena of public opinion and in federal and state legislatures,” Weiss said. “We’re going to do everything we can to just keep the pressure on them.” The German offer would affect some 250,000 concentration camp survivors – 135,000 of them Jewish – who were enslaved by German companies during the war. They would receive about $5,500 each, depending on how many seek payments. It would also compensate between 475,000 and 1.2 million non-Jewish forced laborers from Central and Eastern Europe who were deported and sent to work in Germany. Forced laborers would receive about $1,950 each, depending on how many are still alive and how many seek payments. In addition, money also would be set aside for people who were forced to sell property in Germany at bargain prices during the Nazi era or had their bank accounts seized, as well as for survivors not covered in the other categories. Beyond differences over the amount of the fund, the two sides have yet to resolve exactly how the moneys would be distributed to the various categories of recipients. Agreement was reached, however, on one component of a settlement considered critical to Jewish groups. The German companies and the government agreed to draft a letter or a statement of moral responsibility that would be sent out with payments from the fund, officials said.

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