Slave labor deal only the beginning

BERLIN, Dec. 15 (JTA) — With an agreement in place for a $5.2 billion fund for Nazi-era slave and forced laborers, a chapter is concluding in Germany’s process of dealing with the past.

But it does not bring all discussion to an end.

“Exactly the opposite,” said Konrad Matschke of the Frankfurt office of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, which was among the groups negotiating on behalf of the laborers.

“A confrontation” with what happened during the war “must continue,” he said, noting that this would not be “resolved through a financial correction.”

Matschke pointed out a little-known fact — that the agreement package includes a component for Holocaust education.

“There will be a so-called Future Fund for youth exchange, research and documentation,” Matschke said.

A fund set up several years ago in Austria with proceeds from an auction of unclaimed art stolen by the Nazis also included a grant component intended to support Holocaust educational programs

Deidre Berger, director-designate of the Berlin office of the American Jewish Committee, which has played a behind-the-scenes role in these and other reparations talks, agreed that there is more work ahead.

“What the talks have done is open the chapter,” she said. “Germans can look at their history and understand what happened and take responsibility without in any way being personally guilty or collectively guilty.”

The settlement negotiations brought together representatives of Holocaust survivors, the German, U.S. and Eastern European governments, and some 50 German companies.

Parties to the talks were scheduled to meet in Berlin on Friday, when an official statement was expected regarding the amount of the fund and how much each survivor will receive.

On Wednesday, there were estimates that slave laborers, mostly Jews whom the Nazis expected to be worked to death during the war, will receive individual payments between $5,100 and $7,800.

Forced laborers, most of whom were deported to Nazi Germany from Eastern European nations, would receive an estimated $2,600 to $3,100.

In part because the agreement must be approved by the German Parliament, it is expected that payments will not be made until next summer.

Most everyone agrees that payments should come as swiftly as possible, given the advanced age of the survivors.

Otto Lambsdorff, negotiator for the German side, said in a radio interview Wednesday that Germany wants “to reach living people with our cash payouts, not graves.”

As many as 2 million people may be eligible — the majority of them former forced laborers — depending on how many come forward with claims.

Lawyers involved in the talks are already predicting difficult disputes over how eligibility will be determined.

The question of how to prove eligibility “has not been completely decided,” said Michael Witti, a Munich attorney working for the survivors. “There must be some sort of proof, because otherwise everyone of a certain age could come and register as a former slave laborer.”

“Jewish slave laborers were registered” by the Nazis “because they were to be destroyed,” he said, adding that because of this documentation they will have less trouble proving their cases than others.

The Claims Conference is expected to oversee payments to the former Jewish slave laborers. The money will be distributed through funds in Russia and elsewhere in Eastern Europe, Matschke said.

The long-awaited agreement was reached Tuesday evening after the German side responded to Monday’s steeply reduced demand from the victims’ representatives.

Behind the scenes, President Clinton worked with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder to reach the compromise, according to reports on Wednesday.

About half of the $5.2 billion will come from German public funds, possibly through profits realized from the privatization of public property. An approximately equal amount will come from more than 60 German firms.

The moral issue has been too easily forgotten during these talks, according to some participants.

For the aging survivors, the creation of the fund means far more than the few thousand dollars they will receive nearly 60 years after the fact.

For them, the fund is a sign that modern-day Germany is seeking atonement for the crimes of another generation.

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