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Slovak Jews want Germany to return money

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PRAGUE, Oct. 23 (JTA) – Germany granted Slovakia’s Jewish community a hearing to reclaim millions of dollars the wartime Slovak government allegedly stole from Jews and paid to the Nazis to deport tens of thousands of Jews to concentration camps.

The Central Union of Jewish Religious Communities in Slovakia is to put its case forward in a Berlin regional court next spring. The group claims up to $3.9 million was paid to Germany by the Nazi-puppet Slovak state.

In 1942, 57,800 Slovak Jews were deported to concentration camps. All but a handful were murdered.

A price of 500 Deutschmarks was placed on each head, but the group says official Slovak state records show that only a portion of the overall sum changed hands.

“This is not just a legal but a moral problem,” said the Central Union’s director, Jozef Weiss. “Slovakia was the only country during the war to actually pay for Jews to be sent to camps. Germany does have a responsibility.”

According to Weiss, the money used to pay the Nazis did not come from the Slovak state budget but from assets confiscated from the country’s Jewish community.

“The money was stolen from Jewish families in Slovakia,” he said.

The court move was in part prompted by Slovakia’s exclusion from the lion’s share of the German government-supported $5.2 billion slave and forced labor compensation fund.

While Poland, the Czech Republic, Belarus, Ukraine, Russia and the Claims Conference were recognized as official negotiating partners with the German industry-sponsored fund, Slovakia’s Foreign Ministry failed to win direct participation in talks.

As a result, Slovakia was designated as one of the “Other Countries” that will have to share a smaller pot of just $3.5 million.

The exclusion angered the Slovak coordination committee, which is handling claims on behalf of an estimated 6,000 Slovak citizens, almost one-third of whom are Jewish. It claims Germany reneged on a promise to negotiate directly with Slovakia over its claims.

“This committee was not approved as a partner, and this is one reason why this legal action has begun,” said Fero Alexander, chairman of the coordination committee, who also acts as the union’s executive chairman.

“The court case is not just about money. We are talking about satisfaction and rehabilitation,” he added.

But money does remain an issue for the Jewish community in Slovakia, Weiss said.

“The Jewish community was destroyed” in the war, “but there is a huge heritage in Slovakia,” he said. “There are dozens of synagogues which are falling apart and we don’t have the money to repair them.”

The Slovak Foreign Ministry and the union are both stressing that the Berlin case is a separate issue from the question of slave and forced labor compensation.

The regional court in Berlin is slated to start considering the lawsuit on March 28.

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