NEW YORK, June 19 (JTA) — Expressions of triumph and relief greeted the news that Nazi-persecuted slave laborers are finally beginning to receive compensation from Germany.
It wasn’t long before the cordial mood was punctured.
The first 10,000 applicants will soon get payments of 10,000 German marks — about $4,400 — each, officials of the Claims Conference announced Tuesday.
But Roman Kent, a renowned figure in the Holocaust survivor community, put the $4.5 billion compensation fund in a different perspective for the assembled media.
Kent, a survivor of the Lodz Ghetto and five years in three separate concentration camps, blasted away at those he said were so preoccupied with the money as to obscure the crux of the issue — “historic and moral justice,” he said, including full acknowledgment of German guilt.
Kent lashed into the German government — venting directly at the German representative in the audience, Ambassador to the United Nations Dieter Kastrup — for dragging its feet for years; at media that allegedly concentrated too much on dollars and cents; and at lawyers with what he called “the glitter of gold in their eyes.”
Fifty-one lawyers have divvied up legal fees of $52 million — far below the lawyers’ normal contingency fee.
“It is wrong. It is morally wrong,” said Kent, vice president of the Claims Conference.
“I’m ashamed that I was a participant in these negotiations. But in a way, I’m happy that in some way, for 1 million slave and forced laborers, they will achieve some token of moral justice.”
Other Jewish leaders tried to be more upbeat.
“Far too long has elapsed, but it’s with a sense of gratification that we make these payments,” said Greg Schneider, assistant executive vice president of the Claims Conference.
“After sixty years of pain and agony, four years of negotiations, two years of political wrangling, one year of legal proceedings, and one month of administration, we have arrived at this point,” Schneider said.
Kastrup chairs the German Foundation, which will disburse the funds. He said the delays in payment — due in part to German companies’ insistence on “legal closure,” a guarantee of no further lawsuits — “were sometimes very painful to me.”
Nevertheless, Kastrup said, “an important chapter is closed. But I want to be very clear: There can never be moral closure.”
The payments will be drawn from the fund, established in February 1999 by the German government and a group of German businesses.
Nearly 150,000 out of an estimated 160,000 eligible Jewish survivors, from 25 different countries, have completed applications for compensation. In all, up to 1 million former slave and forced laborers under the Nazis will receive payments from Germany.
“About this topic, there is no justice,” Schneider said. “No survivor will get rich, and no amount of money can compensate.”
Meanwhile, one New York lawyer, Melvyn Weiss, reportedly will receive a windfall of $6.3 million.
Burt Neuborne, a professor at New York University Law School who was awarded $4.4 million, told The New York Times he began work on litigation in 1997 not expecting to be paid.
“While the fees for me are more than I would have dreamed of, they are not particularly high,” he told the paper. “I worked as hard as I could. There wasn’t a day in the last four years that I haven’t worked hard on this case.”
Still, his payment works out to a rate of $3,000 per day.
At the same time, slave laborers — essentially those marked for death through work — will receive up to $6,600 in compensation, while forced laborers — everyone else forced to work — will get up to $2,200.
Israel Singer, secretary general of the World Jewish Congress and another vice president of the Claims Conference, urged the media to “forget the numbers, forget the lawyers.”
“To men of good will on both sides,” Singer said, “thank you for giving some old people some modicum of self-respect.”
Singer expressed regrets to survivors.
“We on the Jewish side apologize that we are giving to you so little and it is coming so late,” he said.
But amid the talk of self-respect and moral justice, survivor Mendel Rosenfeld says nothing has changed.
The Germans “didn’t do it because of their good will; they were forced to do this,” said Rosenfeld, 73, a native of Dej, Romania, who now lives in Borough Park, New York.
“This compensation doesn’t mean anything to me. It will never be possible to improve the situation,” he said. “And all the Jews who went through the real action feel the same way.”
His wife, Hungarian-born Gisella, felt likewise.
“We can never have a good opinion of the Germans,” said Gisella, who spent several months at Auschwitz and then was sent with her sister to Germany to work in an airplane-parts factory.
“How can I, when I see what I see before my eyes, every day, my mother being marched to the gas chambers?”
Germany has extended the deadline for applying for compensation from August to Dec. 31.
American survivors should call 1-800-697-6064, or search the Internet at www.claimscon.org.