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Slave labor talks may be nearing end

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BERLIN, Nov. 3 (JTA) — Negotiators attempting to create a compensation fund for Nazi-era slave and forced laborers have all but engaged in a full-fledged street fight.

But despite the current climate of the talks, the sparring may just be the storm before a final calm.

“An agreement is closer than you might expect” and may be reached by the end of this month, a source close to the negotiations told JTA.

Just the same, getting to the finish line is proving difficult, as negotiators argue about billions of dollars and threaten postponement of the talks.

The current situation is “shameful,” Michel Friedman, a German Jewish leader, said over the weekend.

Germany’s largest companies and the German government last month offered $3.3 billion to settle the claims of hundreds of thousands of workers who were forced to toil in factories and on farms to help fuel the Nazi war machine.

At that time, Jewish groups blasted the offer as “shameful” and “a pittance.” Victims’ lawyers demanded $28 billion.

In the latest round, it appears German mediator Otto Lambsdorff is earning his keep, shuttling between both sides, arguing for a higher offer from the firms on one hand, but rejecting the demands of the victims’ lawyers on the other.

Lambsdorff represents the German government in the settlement negotiations, which also involve 16 German firms, representatives of Holocaust survivors, and the governments of the United States and Eastern Europe.

Late last week, Lambsdorff said he had urged German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder to support a higher offer.

“If we are talking about an improvement, we can’t remain” with the current number, he said over the weekend. But he denied rumors that he had recommended a figure of $5.4 billion.

Now, it appears likely that the next round of the talks, scheduled for the middle of November, will be postponed so mediators can reach a compromise.

Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of the aging population of potential fund recipients may not live long enough to see any payments, said Friedman, a member of the Central Council of Jews in Germany and a newly chosen representative to the European Jewish Congress.

He described the current situation as “one of the most shameful chapters in Germany’s postwar history.”

U.S. Deputy Treasury Secretary Stuart Eizenstat, who has been mediating the talks, discussed the situation during a recent CNN interview, saying, “We’ll inevitably have increased tensions” at this point in the talks.

Meanwhile, a representative of the German firms is saying that an increase in the offer the companies made last month would be “irresponsible.”

Wolfgang Gibowski told the Mannheimer Morgen newspaper Saturday that “those who want still more money should realize that it is really best to accept the current offer, which is higher than the original one.”

The first offer from the industry group was reportedly less than $2 billion.

The topic of reparations is a hot one in Germany, which, despite its high standard of living, suffers from high unemployment.

Schroeder’s talk of budget cuts has cost his party several recent local elections.

The very thought of paying billions of dollars to Holocaust survivors has elicited some heated comments.

An extreme-right party featured the slogan, “More Money for Social Help, Not Huge Memorials,” in its recent election campaign — alluding to a planned national Holocaust memorial in Berlin, which is to cost an estimated $8 million.

The common thread of complaints is that the current generation is not guilty, and therefore should not have to pay.

The current proposal calls for the industry group to pay two-thirds and the German government one-third of the fund.

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.

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.

Payments would also go to other victims who never received reparations.

Although Germany has paid more than $54 billion in compensation to Holocaust survivors since World War II, no payments were made to those living in the Soviet-bloc countries during the Cold War.

Sixteen German firms have formed a foundation called “Remembrance, Responsibility and the Future” to contribute to the fund.

They are: Allianz, BASF, Bayer, BMW, Commerzbank, DaimlerChrysler, Degussa, Deutsche Bank, Deutz, Dresdner Bank, Hoechst, Ruhrkohle, Siemens, Thyssen-Krupp, Veba and Volkswagen.

Some 20 more firms are reportedly willing to contribute.

An estimated 12 million people — mostly from occupied lands — worked as forced laborers in various industries during World War II. Most of them are no longer alive.

(JTA foreign editor Mitchell Danow contributed to this report.)

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