NEW YORK, March 28 (JTA) — Jewish groups were the driving force behind the creation of Germany’s latest Holocaust compensation fund, but Jews will not be the primary recipients.
Indeed, only about 30 percent of the approximately $5.2 billion fund will go to Jews or Jewish causes, according to a source close to the negotiations that resulted in the fund’s creation.
After months of squabbling among the various parties — particularly involving lawyers representing competing interests — those negotiations wrapped up March 23 in Berlin with an agreement to provide the bulk of the fund to Holocaust-era slave and forced laborers.
Jews are receiving a smaller piece of the pie because there are fewer living slave laborers, most of whom are Jewish, than forced laborers, who are non-Jewish.
Nazi policies account for the sharply different proportion of survivors from these two groups. The slave laborers were concentration camp prisoners whom the Nazis sought to work to death. The forced laborers, imported from Eastern European nations to free up Germans to serve in the army, worked under better conditions than the slave laborers.
Jewish groups have been pressing German companies to pay Nazi-era slave laborers since the end of World War II.
The strongest “moral argument came from the Jews, based on the slave- labor issue,” said Karen Heilig, staff counsel for the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, which was among the groups negotiating on behalf of the laborers.
This was the “driving force” behind all the negotiations with Germany, she added.
A series of lawsuits brought in recent years in U.S. and German courts on behalf of Jewish slave laborers are generally credited with getting Germany to agree to the fund. Indeed, German firms had demanded that the agreement include a provision giving them protection against any future lawsuits.
Heilig said the presence of German subsidiaries on U.S. soil, which made them the targets of possible sanctions, also played a role in getting Germany to agree to the fund.
There were several other factors, she said, pointing to the reunification of the two Germanys, recently declassified Holocaust-era documents and a $1.25 billion agreement involving Swiss banks that was reached in 1998 to settle claims surrounding Switzerland’s handling of Holocaust victims’ assets.
“A lot of different pieces of the puzzle started coming together,” said Heilig.
Compared to the Jewish effort, Eastern European countries joined the negotiations far more recently.
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.
The negotiators — including representatives of Holocaust survivors, the German, U.S. and Eastern European governments, and German companies — agreed last December on the size of the fund, to be split equally by German government and industry.
Since then, in talks alternating between Berlin and Washington, the negotiators have been wrangling over how to divide the money.
Jewish groups welcomed last week’s allocation agreement, but felt it came too late for many who suffered in the Holocaust.
“It’s important to note” that the agreement “comes five decades after the war,” said Gideon Taylor, executive vice president of the Claims Conference.
“At best, what has been accomplished represents a measure of justice,” Taylor said. “What is needed now is a German statement on the accord’s moral dimension.”
Taylor and other Jewish leaders have long stressed that their efforts focused on achieving justice — not simply on Jews getting more money.
Noah Flug, who serves as secretary-general of an umbrella group representing Holocaust survivors in Israel, called last week’s agreement “an important step that for some has come a little too late.”
Flug estimated that two-thirds of those survivors who would have been eligible to receive payments from the fund have already died.
The chief German negotiator, Otto Lambsdorff, predicted that payments could be made later this year — assuming the German Parliament passes enabling legislation, a move expected in July. The German Cabinet approved the bill one day before the distribution agreement was reached.
U.S. Deputy Treasury Secretary Stuart Eizenstat, who represented the United States in the negotiations, said claimants will have eight months to apply for compensation after the legislation is approved. Claims procedures are expected to be announced in the coming months.
Under the terms of the deal, some 240,000 slave laborers — about 140,000 are Jewish — will receive up to $7,500 each. More than 1 million forced laborers will get up to $2,500 each.
People whose property was looted by the Nazis, victims of Nazi medical experiments and those with unpaid Holocaust-era insurance policies will also be among those entitled to claim payments.
The allocation agreement includes the following distributions:
• $906 million to Poland; $862 million to Ukraine; $417.5 million to Russia; $347 million to Belarus; and $211.5 million to the Czech Republic. Jews living in these countries are expected to get payments from these allocations;
• The Claims Conference will get about $906 million for distribution outside the above five countries;
• $500 million for property claims, including looted bank accounts and unpaid insurance policies;
• $350 million for a foundation to sponsor research and educational projects on Nazi labor policies.