BERLIN, Feb. 22 (JTA) — The issue of money, rather than morality, has made headlines across Germany during the ongoing negotiations for a fund to compensate Holocaust-era slave laborers.
Before negotiators agreed late last year on a total of $5.2 billion for the fund, the talks were snagged over differences involving of billions of marks — at a time when more than 4 million Germans are jobless.
The focus on money has been a troubling and frustrating phenomenon for many of those at the bargaining table.
“It’s not just an issue of Jews wanting more money. That pains me greatly,” said Gideon Taylor, executive vice president of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, which was among the groups negotiating on behalf of the laborers.
“You translate things into financial terms, so it is easy for people to say it is all about money, but it isn’t. You can’t pay anyone what they should get. That’s the starting and ending point for me.”
Rabbi Andrew Baker, director of European affairs for the American Jewish Committee, agrees that those who suffered cannot ever be paid enough.
But at the same time, he said the talks are about money — “and I don’t think we should be embarrassed about it,” he said at a recent seminar on the topic of compensation, sponsored by the organization’s Berlin office.
For years, former SS members have received their old-age pensions, he reminded those in attendance. What about those who suffered under their hands?
Last week, negotiators wrapped up the latest round of talks with no agreement on how to divide the $5.2 billion.
Talks are slated to continue March 7-8 in Washington.
Survivor advocates have questioned whether the compensation package should include a planned $1 billion “future fund” for memorials and educational projects, as well as a plan to set aside a small portion of the fund to compensate those who lost property due to the “Aryanization” of Jewish assets.
They say these well-meaning plans would come at the expense of survivors nearing the ends of their lives.
In addition, Wolfgang Gibowski, spokesman for the industry fund, expressed doubts last Friday that German industry would reach its goal of $2.6 billion any time soon. The other half of the fund is coming from the German government.
Speaking at the seminar, Gibowski said he is about to contact some 240,000 German companies and ask them to contribute to the compensation fund whether they used slave laborers or not.
“It hurts, I can tell you,” said Gibowski. “They tell me, ‘For a million marks we can secure jobs or start a new company.’ ”
Distaste for all the focus on money was voiced by German legislator Erika Steinbach, who said money-hungry lawyers from America were responsible for bringing up the reparations theme.
She said it is little known that “millions of Germans had to suffer as slave laborers, even small children, after 1945.”
Most Germans do not blame the Holocaust-era victims or exonerate the perpetrators. But they often appear more fixated on the money to be paid out than on the crimes that occurred during the war.
Reparations are “important, but it hits the small person who will have to pay a higher tax,” said a 58-year-old Berlin woman rushing home after work.
“What I don’t understand is all this bargaining about money,” said Uwe Glasbrenner, a 36-year-old travel agent. “News reports are all about how much money is in the fund, and how the German companies will have a hard time getting the money together. These are enormous sums.”
When asked if he had an idea how many of the estimated 1 million surviving forced or slave laborers are Jewish, Glasbrenner guessed it was half.
In fact, less than 20 percent — about 168,000 — are Jewish.
Within that minority, some 140,000 are described as slave laborers because they were working as concentration camp prisoners, under constant threat of death. The forced laborers, most of whom were deported to Nazi Germany from Eastern European nations, worked under better conditions than the slave laborers.
According to the best estimates of historians and survivors groups, said Alissa Kaplan, spokeswoman for the Claims Conference, there are 240,000 former slave laborers still living.
It is easy to see how the experiences of slave laborers can become lost in the tangle of financial discussions.
But, for an hour last Friday, the focus shifted to the crimes when those attending the seminar on compensation listened quietly to the testimony of Gunther Ruschin, a Berliner who was forced to work at an IG Farben factory at Auschwitz.
Deported as a teen-ager, he “became an adult man” upon arrival at the camp, where he was told, “The only way out of the concentration camp is through the chimney.”
Ruschin described how he saw a 14-year-old prisoner hanged “because allegedly he had stolen potatoes. But the child was so light that he did not die. One of the people there almost went crazy — he was yanking the child down by his feet.”
Many survivors today are destitute, living in former Soviet lands, and waiting for a token acknowledgment of their suffering.
But they will all have to wait at least a bit longer because, beyond the various disagreements about how to make distributions, the German Parliament has yet to approve a law endorsing the fund before payments can be made.
When all is said and done, each survivor may receive a few thousand dollars from the fund — at best a symbolic nod to their suffering.
“Can symbols help people? We think they can,” said the Claims Conference’s Taylor. “They can help survivors recover their dignity.”