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Sides move closer to slave labor deal

BERLIN, Nov. 17 (JTA) — A round of talks aimed at creating a compensation fund for Nazi-era slave laborers has ended on an optimistic note — but with no agreement yet.

Representatives of Holocaust survivors, the German, U.S. and Eastern European governments and some 50 German companies narrowed their differences during two days of talks in Bonn.

The latest round of negotiations, which are expected to resume in about three weeks, ended with the German side increasing its previous offer of $3.3 billion and lawyers for the survivors climbing down significantly from their earlier demand of $28 billion.

While no new figures were announced, sources close to the talks say the Germans are now offering $5.3 billion and the lawyers are now seeking around $8 billion.

“The gap has narrowed,” Gideon Taylor, executive director of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, told JTA after the talks ended Wednesday.

Just the same, he added, the discussions are “ultimately not about money. It is about survivors and a notion of justice.

“No amount of money can make up for what happened.”

Taylor and Israel Singer, the secretary-general of the World Jewish Congress, met Tuesday with German President Johannes Rau to discuss ways in which Germany can deal with the legacy of the Holocaust.

Rau agreed that Germany would issue a statement of moral responsibility that would accompany any settlement reached in the slave-labor talks.

Munich attorney Michael Witti, who represents slave laborers, told JTA he expected intense behind-the-scenes negotiations before the next official round of talks.

Witti, who is working together with American lawyer Edward Fagan, described this week’s talks as “extremely tense, and there was great anxiety about them breaking apart. But in the end everyone was really trying to keep an optimistic atmosphere.”

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.

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