Germany ups contribution to slave fund

BERLIN, Nov. 15 (JTA) — Once-firm positions appeared to be easing as talks were set to resume on a compensation fund for Nazi-era slave and forced laborers.

On Monday, Germany announced that it plans to increase its contribution to the fund to $1.6 billion.

The government’s 50 percent increase over its previous offer came on the eve of the resumption of negotiations about the fund’s size Tuesday in Bonn.

Otto Lambsdorff, who represents the German government in the settlement negotiations and made Monday’s announcement, also said that German firms may also raise their offer.

In another sign that positions are narrowing, lawyers for the laborers, who had initially demanded $28 billion, reportedly have reduced their demand by about half.

In October, Germany’s largest companies and the German government 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. Under that proposal, the industry group was to pay two-thirds and the German government one-third of the total.

It is still not clear whether the German firms will also increase the size of their contribution. But with a total of 50 companies now agreeing to participate — up from the initial group of 15 — Lambsdorff was optimistic that their offer would increase.

German President Johannes Rau, who has said that it is in the nation’s interest to have more companies take part, called on the firms to increase their offer.

With the same goal in mind, Economics Minister Werner Mueller has suggested that the Association of German Employers dissolve a fund earmarked for counteracting labor disputes and contribute those moneys to the industry compensation fund.

But opponents of the move say it may be illegal to use those funds for anything aside from their stated purpose.

Along with the German government and companies, the settlement negotiations also involve representatives of Holocaust survivors and the governments of the United States and Eastern Europe.

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.

Meanwhile, the fund is facing pressures from a lawyer representing some half-million former slave laborers from Russia.

The attorney, former German Interior Minister Gerhart Baum, said in a newspaper interview Saturday that talk of an Eastern European boycott against German companies should be taken seriously “even if it is clear that their economic power is not as great as in America.”

Lambsdorff has previously warned that if an agreement is not reached, German firms could face a U.S. boycott.

Fear of boycotts or other such measures against Germany has evidently had its impact.

One banking industry representative in Frankfurt recently told the news magazine Der Spiegel that firms are worried that if the talks fail, “the Americans will shove photos of half-dead slave laborers in front of us every day in the court.”

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