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Slave-labor deal postponed again

BERLIN, Dec. 8 (JTA) — Another deadline has come and gone in the negotiations to create a compensation fund for Nazi-era slave laborers.

Germany had been waiting for an official U.S. response to a $4.2 billion offer the German government and a group of German companies proposed last month to create the fund.

But on Wednesday, the deadline for a response, there was none forthcoming from U.S. Deputy Treasury Secretary Stuart Eizenstat, who is representing the United States in the negotiations, according to a spokeswoman for Eizenstat.

According to a source close to the talks, attorneys representing the laborers met in Washington on Wednesday night, after they reached no consensus on the proposed German fund.

The German side has refused to budge from its previous offer, while lawyers and other survivor representatives have maintained their demand for at least $1 billion more.

Further talks look likely for next week.

“Things could go either way,” said Alissa Kaplan, a spokeswoman for the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, which is among the groups negotiating on behalf of the laborers.

“They are up to the highest levels of government,” she said, adding that “President Clinton is very serious about this. We need an agreement, given the age of the survivors.”

“It would be a shame if it didn’t work, because of all the time that has been put into this,” Kaplan said in a telephone interview from New York. “To put it off any more would be a shame from a historical and financial perspective, and most of all from the ideological perspective.”

Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress, appealed to the German side to “demonstrate a generosity of spirit, in the spirit of the season, to finalize this agreement.”

Otto Lambsdorff, the negotiator for the German side, said Tuesday in Bonn that it is urgent that the U.S. government support the German offer.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder also made this point in a letter to Clinton a few days ago.

The lawyers representing the former slave laborers formally rejected the German offer Tuesday.

One of the lawyers, Ed Fagan, also announced Tuesday a class-action lawsuit against Japanese firms that used slave laborers during World War II.

On Wednesday, survivor organizations in Prague, Warsaw and Frankfurt joined to condemn what they called delaying tactics by the German industry group.

Alfred Hauser, speaking for an organization of former slave laborers, said the current German offer is “pitiful.”

In related news, Deutsche Bank, Germany’s largest, and Dresdner Bank are talking about creating a fund of their own if this week’s round of negotiations fail.

Steinberg of the WJC told Reuters on Tuesday that such a move would be disastrous for the negotiating process as well as expensive for the companies who drop out.

In another development, a German manufacturer of saws, Andreas Stihl, announced Tuesday its decision to join the industry fund.

The firm reportedly used about 40 foreign workers per year between 1939 and 1943. It remains unknown how many were slave laborers.

Meanwhile, German newspapers are filled with reports about Tuesday’s publication of a list of 257 German firms that used slave laborers during the Third Reich.

The list was a project of the Berlin office of the American Jewish Committee.

Several German newspapers published the entire list in their pages Wednesday.

Deidre Berger, the director-designate of the AJCommittee’s Berlin office, said she hoped it would put pressure on more firms to join the compensation 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.

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