BERLIN, Dec. 20 (JTA) — Noah Flug was a teen-ager when he was forced to help build a bomb-proof underground factory in Germany.
“There were 20,000 people there from 19 nations — and every week 500 died.”
Born in Lodz, Poland, Flug survived 68 months in ghettos and concentration camps. Now 74, he serves as secretary-general of an umbrella group representing Holocaust survivors in Israel.
Roman Kent, also born in Lodz, was one of only five Jewish teens to survive out of 805 in a Nazi labor camp in Gross-Rosen.
“There is no answer, how did I manage to survive. There is no one explanation, not luck, not providence,” said Kent, who is now chairman of the board of the New York-based American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors.
When Rudy Kennedy was 15, he and his family were deported from their town near Breslau, Poland, to the concentration camp at Auschwitz.
He and his father worked at an I.G. Farben factory there, said Kennedy, now in his 70s and head of the London-based Claims for Jewish Slave-Labor Compensation.
Before his father died, he added, “I promised him I would tell the world.”
Last Friday, Flug, Kent and Kennedy were among a group of former slave laborers meeting German President Johannes Rau at the presidential palace.
During that meeting, Rau offered atonement for the crimes of the Nazi years.
“I beg your forgiveness, in the name of the German people,” said the white-haired, 68-year-old president. “We will never forget your suffering.”
Rau’s statement came after the signing that day of an agreement under which Germany and a group of German firms will pay $5.2 billion to former slave and forced laborers from the Holocaust era.
Under that deal, it has been estimated that some 240,000 slave laborers, mostly Jews whom the Nazis planned to work to death during the war, will receive individual payments of about $7,800.
An estimated 1 million forced laborers, most of whom were deported to Nazi Germany from Eastern European nations and worked under better conditions than the slave laborers, would receive about half that amount.
A portion of the fund will be given to people who suffered through medical experiments at Nazi concentration camps, or who were forced to sell businesses or other property at bargain-sale prices by the Third Reich.
Under the terms of the agreement signed last Friday, the German firms “agreed to open their archives for legitimate historical research,” according to Otto Lambsdorff, negotiator for the German side.
This was agreed to so that “money alone will not be the last memory” of this chapter in history, he said.
An undetermined percentage of the moneys will also be used to create a fund for educational projects.
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.
Only a few major German firms have made payments to former slave or forced laborers.
While reaching the agreement was an important accomplishment, there is much work to do regarding allocating the funds.
Discussions on how to create the mechanism for paying Nazi-era slave laborers will take several months, Lambsdorff was quoted as saying Sunday.
“This will be difficult, maybe even more difficult than the negotiations so far,” he told the Welt am Sonntag newspaper.
Lambsdorff said he hoped arrangements for how to distribute the fund would be settled within three months, but did not expect an agreement at the next round of talks, slated for Feb. 1.
Meanwhile, Israel has welcomed last week’s announcement of the fund, but said in a statement that timely payments are “of utmost importance in light of the advanced age of the survivors.”
Despite the difficulties that lie ahead, the mood was upbeat when the agreement was reached last Friday.
During the ceremony at the presidential palace, U.S. Deputy Treasury Secretary Stuart Eizenstat, who represented the United States in the negotiations leading up to the $5.2 billion agreement, said Rau’s comments were an act of courage.
Describing Rau’s apology as being of “historic significance,” Eizenstat said, “In the name of President Clinton, I thank you.”
Calling it a “great day for [those] who suffered grievously,” he applauded all government and industry participants, as well as the class action lawyers, for their roles in bringing about the agreement.
The lawyers’ fees have not been confirmed, but it has been suggested that the payment might come from interest on the fund.
Earlier in the day, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, in Berlin for a meeting of the Group of Eight nations, said, “Germany has done the right thing and has done it with dignity.”
And German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, speaking at a news conference, said he was “very pleased” an agreement had been reached “at the end of a bloody century in which Germany caused much suffering among European people, and in particular with the Holocaust.”
Perhaps the most moving words of the day came from Kent, who appeared at the podium after Rau spoke.
He repeated the German president’s apology, using the Hebrew prayer for atonement: “Slach lanu — forgive us for we have sinned.”
“Imagine me from the camps, sitting there in the palace” and saying those words, Kent said later. “This is unbelievable.”
He had wanted Rau’s words to reflect the fact that “we were fighting for the dignity and morality of everyone, not just the Jews,” Kent said. “These words should reverberate throughout the world so no Holocaust should happen, either to us Jews or to any other people.”
With the deal signed and sealed, some attorneys who participated in the talks spoke freely about their disappointment.
“The companies are getting a free ride,” said Pompeyo Roa Realuyo, who said he represents some 10,000 Russian forced laborers. “I computed the total profits [of the participating firms] in 1998, and it was about $51 billion.”
New York attorney Mel Urbach, whose father was a slave laborer during the war, said the agreement creating the fund came “too late for many people.”
His father died 12 years ago.
“When I sent my clients a letter saying, ‘I can get you x-amount of money or I can keep on fighting,’ one of them wrote back and said, ‘For me, a month is a year and a year is a lifetime.’ ”
“These are disgustingly low numbers, and the companies are also expecting legal closure,” said Munich attorney Michael Witti.
After most other lawyers, survivors and other participants had left the presidential palace in Berlin, New York Lawyer Ed Fagan said his work is far from over.
Standing outside in a bitter wind, Fagan said he is preparing to fight new industrial foes in Japan, England, France, Sweden, Italy and the United States.
He said when German firms open their archives it will provide “a paper trail to other culprits.”
“They know full well what they did during the war. They just didn’t know that we could catch them.”