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Claims Conference Begins Drive to Find Nazis’ Slave, Forced Workers

Gisella, a Holocaust survivor in her 70s, clutches a manila folder thick with her partially written memoirs and wartime documents. Her eyes are red and puffy from an afternoon of intermittent weeping. She has just sat through a news conference Tuesday at which Jewish officials launched a global campaign to find and compensate the slave and forced laborers who toiled for the Nazis or their collaborators.

Jewish leaders at the event were careful to describe the compensation — up to $7,500 per slave laborer — as a “small, symbolic gesture” significant primarily for its “historical recognition” of the atrocities committed against Europe’s Jews.

But that isn’t enough for Gisella. She endured almost three years at Auschwitz-Birkenau, sometime lugging rocks and sacks of sand, and she lives each day with the knowledge that her mother, father and brother were murdered with impunity.

“You cannot even say this is the minimum; it’s nothing,” says Gisella, a native of Humenne, Czechoslovakia, who today lives in the Orthodox community of Boro Park, New York.

“I should like only that all the goyim kneel down and beg forgiveness of the Jews,” she says, using a Hebrew word for Gentiles. “It wouldn’t bring back my parents, but they should know that they let this happen to us. How can they live with this on their conscience? How come the pope didn’t kneel down and say `Yes, we can never be forgiven?’ And the Germans! I leave it to HaShem — He should take revenge for us.”

Gisella, who did not want to give her family name, said she will give relatives in Israel any money she receives from Germany.

Yet it’s still unclear when that money will come.

The German government and assorted industries agreed on Feb. 16, 1999, to create an approximately $5.2 billion fund to compensate slave and forced laborers. The heirs of anyone eligible at that time, who has since died, is eligible to receive the money in his or her stead.

But the German authorities lately have been unwilling to release the cash until their lawyers can ensure “legal closure” — that is, a promise that no more lawsuits relating to the Nazi era will be filed.

In the meantime, an estimated 10 percent of Holocaust survivors are believed to die each year.

“For the Germans right now to hold on to this money, while another 10 percent die, is disgraceful,” said Roman Kent, a Holocaust survivor who serves as a vice president of the Claims Conference. The conference was among the groups that negotiated on behalf of the laborers.

“Their deeds contradict their words,” he said. “Half the money should be disseminated without waiting for legal closure.”

In the meantime, the Claims Conference will launch a worldwide publicity blitz this week to track down surviving laborers, both Jews and Gentiles.

There are believed to be some 170,000 surviving Jewish slave and forced laborers.

The slave laborers were concentration camp prisoners whom the Nazis tried to work to death. The forced laborers, imported from Eastern Europe to free up Germans to serve in the army, worked under better conditions.

Up to 60,000 Jewish former slave laborers live in the United States, 30,000 or so in the New York area.

Including Gentiles, there are an estimated 1 million former slave and forced laborers around the world.

In what Executive Vice President Gideon Taylor called a “massive logistical endeavor,” the Claims Conference will coordinate efforts with Jewish and non-Jewish groups in some 40 countries, in eight different languages.

In North America, local branches of Jewish family services organizations will spearhead the applications process, together with umbrella groups like the Agudath Israel World Organization, which represents fervently Orthodox Jews.

As part of the publicity campaign, the Claims Conference will take out ads in nearly 160 newspapers. The first ads in the U.S. Jewish media — headlined “Were You Forced to Work for the Nazis?” — should appear this week.

In coming weeks, the campaign will extend to Europe, Israel, South America, South Africa and Australia.

Claimants must apply by August 2001. They can obtain application forms at the conference’s Web site, at www.claimscon.org.

Jewish communities across the United States also plan to hold “open houses” at which volunteers will help claimants fill out applications.

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