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Focus on Issues: Spending Restitution Money Pits Survivors Against Groups

Since 1996, Jewish groups and their lawyers have gone to the mat with the likes of the Germans, the Swiss and the French, extracting $9 billion in restitution for the evil wrought in Europe by Nazi forces and their collaborators.

While the entire process is gradually winding down, a few more battles loom: with the Austrian government, museums holding looted artwork and the U.S. companies whose wartime German subsidiaries profited from slave labor.

But the clash that promises to be particularly wrenching will actually pit Jew against Jew: what to do with the hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars in “residual” funds, or those without direct heirs or claimants.

On Sept. 11, the World Jewish Congress will formally announce the creation of a foundation – tentatively named the Foundation for the Jewish People – that will determine the spending priorities.

The foundation was actually established in June in Jerusalem, but the WJC chose to announce it at a gala event in New York to honor the politicians who have played a key role in restitution, including President Clinton, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The foundation board will be made up of representatives of various Jewish organizations, Holocaust survivor groups and the Israeli government. Among the ideas floated are funding Jewish and Holocaust education, restoring Jewish communities in Europe or building Holocaust museums and memorials, said Elan Steinberg, WJC’s executive director.

“The Nazis sought to wipe out not only the Jewish people, but Jewish communities and Judaism itself,” Steinberg said.

“Obviously, this has been 50 years too slow. But I think the issue we have to address, are now forced to address, is to ensure that how these residual assets are used reflects the best interests of the Jewish people as a whole.”

Many Holocaust survivors vehemently disagree.

While they support the general need for education, commemoration, documentation and research, they believe there are more pressing needs: health care for the 250,000 survivors worldwide, including 130,000 in the United States. An estimated 1,000 survivors die each month.

“Yes, money should be spent for Jewish education and culture, but that is the obligation of klal Yisrael – of all Jews,” said Roman Kent, a survivor who serves as chairman of the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and vice president of the Claims Conference.

“But to me, this money has one specific purpose: All of it should go to the survivors. As long as there are still survivors who are old and sick and needy, they are the first obligation.”

The $9 billion figure is a bit misleading, and most of it is already spoken for, according to the WJC’s Steinberg.

Per an agreement reached with Germany in July, $5.2 billion will go to some 1.25 million forced and slave laborers. In real terms, Jewish laborers will receive 30 percent of the sum, with 140,000 slave laborers collecting up to $7,500 apiece.

Of the $1.25 billion from the Swiss banks, $200 million went into a humanitarian fund for the 250,000 Jewish survivors around the world. Lump-sum payments ranged from $500 to $1,400. In the United States, nearly $30 million was allocated to more than 60,000 survivors, or $502 apiece.

According to Steinberg, France has committed to $700 million; Holland, $400 million; German insurers, $350 million-plus; various settlements for stolen artwork amount to $200 million; Italian insurer Assicurazioni Generali, $150 million; Norway, about $70 million; and Great Britain, roughly $50 million.

In addition, in negotiations with the Claims Conference in the 1950s, Germany agreed to pay annual pensions to some 85,000 survivors. That total has run to nearly $50 billion, and about $500 million a year.

The Claims Conference is also responsible for selling off unclaimed property from the former East Germany, which now generates close to $80 million per year.

Twenty percent is allocated for Holocaust-related research and documentation, while 80 percent goes for social welfare programs for survivors in the former Soviet Union, Israel and the United States. This includes home care assistance for 18,000 survivors in all three regions, and 3 million hot meals and 800,000 food packages per year in the former Soviet Union, said Gideon Taylor, the conference’s executive vice president.

“We’ve been able to make a huge difference in the lives of hundreds of thousands of people,” Taylor said.

“The question is, how do we use the limited resources available from restitution to help the neediest survivors all around the world. It’s what our allocations process grapples with: balancing resources with competing needs.”

Taylor concedes that not everyone will come away satisfied.

But what lies at the heart of this intracommunal debate are two contentious issues: Who are the rightful heirs to all that was lost in Europe, and who has the right to decide how the money should be spent.

Holocaust survivors and their advocates say the stolen property and assets lost did not in fact belong to “the Jewish people as a whole,” but to European Jewish communities and individuals. Furthermore, they say, it is the survivors, and they alone, who are entitled to decide the spending priorities, not the groups that negotiated on their behalf.

Their side was incensed by an Aug. 22 Reuters report stating that “for the past five decades” groups such as the WJC and Claims Conference “have been designated as the heirs of the six million people killed by the Nazis.”

While survivors say this reflects the attitude and arrogance of these groups, Steinberg told JTA that Reuters got it wrong. He reiterated that “the Jewish people are the heirs of Jewish assets.”

Weighing in for the Claims Conference, spokeswoman Alissa Kaplan added: “I don’t think there are right or wrong answers. Who is the heir of those who didn’t survive is a philosophical question, and a very difficult question.

“Survivors should have a voice and they do have a strong voice. Most of our negotiators are survivors,” Kaplan said.

That’s not enough to placate either survivors or their advocates.

The need for financial assistance is particularly acute in South Florida, which is home to the second largest community of survivors, numbering at least 15,000.

“If these survivors are placed in a position, which many of them are, where they have to choose between food, medication and rent, something is very wrong with this picture,” said Rositta Kenigsberg, the daughter of a Polish survivor and executive vice president of the Holocaust Documentation and Education Center at Florida International University. Her center has become the “central address” for South Florida’s survivors, she says.

“I’m not saying there aren’t other elderly in this situation. But this is a population that is justifiably the hereditary and biological heirs, if you will, to what was stolen in Europe.”

“That this is so difficult to understand for those negotiating these settlements, in the name of these survivors, is a shocking, shocking revelation. It’s so black and white, so obvious.”

In South Florida, the survivors have reached consensus on a $46 million plan that would provide six to eight hours of home health care primarily to the home-bound or bed-ridden, in order to avoid their institutionalization.

Joe Sachs, co-chairman of the Florida Survivors Coalition, said his group has requested $10 million to $15 million in “seed money” for the plan from the Claims Conference. The Florida Insurance Commission supports the plan, Sachs said, and it may be adopted by other survivor groups in New York and California, the first and third largest survivor communities.

The Claims Conference’s Taylor said he has discussed the proposal with Sachs and others, but no decision has been made.

Sachs said he is discouraged by the response.

“We should have had a voice from the beginning; now we’ve wound up pleading for what’s rightfully ours,” said Sachs, 74, who was confined for three years in the ghetto in his native Sosnowiec, then suffered three years in labor and concentration camps. He lost his parents and brother, and 52 of 58 relatives overall.

“We’re not going to be around forever. Let’s give these people their due. Just a little justice. A little peace of mind from their health care problems in their last few years.”

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