NEW YORK, July 17 (JTA) — Holocaust-era slave and forced laborers are a step closer toward receiving payments, but Jewish leaders are reserving their applause.
“Slave laborers are dying every day,” Rabbi Israel Miller, the president of the Claims Conference, said Monday after Germany joined other nations at a signing ceremony in Berlin creating an approximately $5.2 billion fund for the laborers.
“Our obligation is to reach them so that they will see some benefit in their lifetime.”
The ceremony cleared the way for the applications process to start before the end of the year, according to Alissa Kaplan, spokeswoman for the Claims Conference.
She said the group has already begun the “massive undertaking” of readying itself for the applications and payment process.
With an eye toward getting “payments out as quickly and efficiently as possible,” Kaplan said the Claims Conference has already hired personnel, generated lists of likely recipients and set up phone banks to deal with an expected flood of inquiries.
According to Kaplan, each payment to a former laborer will be accompanied by an apology from Germany.
Monday’s agreement, which also gave German companies protection from class-action lawsuits in the United States, came nearly seven months after the German government and representatives of German industry announced that they would create the fund, with each contributing half.
The ensuing months have witnessed disagreements about how the funds will be distributed and how to give the German firms the legal protection they seek in return for their contributions.
While welcoming the signing, the Claims Conference, which was among the groups negotiating on behalf of the laborers, is keenly aware that time works against the aging survivor population.
“None of this means anything if we don’t help the survivors,” said Gideon Taylor, the group’s executive vice president. “This is not about political glory. We have to deal with getting payments to the people who really count.”
Among the signers at Monday’s ceremony in Berlin was U.S. Deputy Treasury Secretary Stuart Eizenstat, who represented the United States in the negotiations. Also participating were representatives from the Claims Conference, Poland, Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and the Czech Republic, all of which will distribute a portion of the fund.
At Monday’s signing ceremony, German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer called the fund’s creation “above all a gesture of moral responsibility” toward Nazi victims.
Jewish leaders have long stressed that their efforts were focused on achieving justice — not simply on Jews getting more money.
Only about 30 percent of the fund will go to Jews or Jewish causes.
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.
Under the terms of an allocation agreement reached in March, some 240,000 slave laborers — about 140,000 of whom 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 reached in March 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.