Restitution Shake-up Proposed As Debate over Funds Drags on

The leader of international Holocaust restitution efforts is proposing a major organizational shake-up that could affect the distribution of hundreds of millions of dollars.

Israel Singer, the president of the Claims Conference and the co-chairman of the World Jewish Restitution Organization, is proposing a merger of the two groups to make restitution efforts more efficient.

However, some officials attending the Claims Conference meeting in Luxembourg this week worry that such restructuring would only create new problems and not resolve the larger debate over how restitution money should be distributed.

A debate has been raging for years over how restitution funds should be distributed, who the real heirs of survivors are, whether survivors are getting the compensation they should and how well organizations entrusted with restitution efforts are doing their jobs.

Singer told JTA he was “absolutely committed” to change, but did not expect it to take place quickly.

“The devil is in the players,” he said here at the start of two days of meetings, in the city where Germany signed its historic Holocaust survivor compensation agreement 50 years ago.

“I’m going to try to streamline,” he told JTA, adding that this was the place for the discussions to begin. “I want to integrate political leaders of both organizations and create a body of importance.”

But some are questioning the necessity of major changes, which are sure to spark turf battles.

“You have to be cautious,” said a source close to the issue. “Even when there is duplication, a world war is not worth it.”

The source and other officials who declined to be named were skeptical that organizational change is really needed since the WJRO coordinates Jewish communal claims and negotiates with appropriate authorities while the Claims Conference is involved in negotiations, but also provides hands-on processing of claims.

“There is no duplication,” one official said. “There is a perfect distribution of labor.”

The WJRO, created in 1992, is an umbrella organization including the Jewish Agency for Israel, B’nai B’rith, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and survivor organizations. It deals with restitution issues outside of Germany and Austria.

The Claims Conference, a founding member of the WJRO, is responsible for restitution of Jewish property and assets in Germany and Austria, but has been involved in other restitution efforts as well.

For the past 50 years, it has been primarily responsible for $50 billion in reparations to more than 500,000 Holocaust survivors.

Naftali Lavi, chairman of the executive for the WJRO, said he welcomes any suggestion to streamline the restitution efforts.

“If there can be a merger, it can only serve the purpose of more efficiency and better organization,” he said. “But I don’t know if results in restitution will be affected.”

A dizzying array of settlements and ongoing negotiations have evolved since restitution was thrust on the world stage in the 1990s, mostly at the behest of leaders of the World Jewish Congress, of which Singer is now chairman.

The Claims Conference has paid — or is finalizing payment — to almost 100,000 survivors, mostly in Eastern Europe. The sums include nearly half a billion dollars from a German foundation and $94 million from the Swiss banks settlement, both for slave labor compensation, with another $12.9 million forthcoming from this latter fund.

Some organizations, such as the International Commission of Holocaust Era Insurance Claims, are accused of mismanagement, and property restitution efforts in Eastern Europe have been floundering for years.

Funds to be disbursed from the insurance claims portion of the Swiss settlement and the sale of heirless properties in Central and Eastern Europe could total hundreds of millions of dollars.

It is the future fate of these potential funds that is generating significant debate in the community.

Survivors’ groups have argued that the needs of elderly survivors are being disregarded, and they are running out of time.

Singer and other officials say as long as there are Holocaust survivors in need, they will be the primary beneficiaries of restitution efforts.

But Singer believes that leftover money should be used to revitalize and create a renaissance for the Jewish people.

“Holocaust survivors are not the only persons charged with making decisions for the Jewish people about how to use monies that will not be needed after they die,” Singer wrote recently in the publication Sh’ma.

“The entire Jewish people are the heirs of survivors, and as a child of survivors and having worked for them my entire life, I say this with some authority,” he said, reiterating the position he has been staking for awhile.

The debate, then, is likely to continue over the use of restitution funds, and whether a proper balance can be struck for survivors, Holocaust education and Jewish education and identity-building in the Diaspora.

Sam Dubbin of the Holocaust Survivors Foundation says the Claims Conference itself is at fault because it has not properly represented survivors’ interests.

Whether the restitution involves insurance, banking or property issues, the basis of any negotiation should be around an amount that can make survivors’ lives better, according to Dubbin.

Claims Conference officials say they monitor and oversee distribution and do not run direct service projects nor allocate the money to begin with, and have gotten millions to survivors.

Critics of the progress of restitution efforts do not see the proposed reorganization as the solution that will correct underlying problems.

When the Claims Conference last reorganized in April, creating four leadership positions, several controversies surfaced.

The Jewish Agency for Israel, which had hoped for a greater role in deciding how to distribute outstanding reparations, complained that the new leadership would not properly represent Israeli interests.

Noach Flug, newly elected president of the International Auschwitz Committee and chairman of the Center of Holocaust Survivors in Israel, agrees with Singer on the need for streamlining.

“Today, the center of the Claims Conference is in New York and the center of the World Jewish Restitution Organization is in Jerusalem. I think we should build a united organization with two centers: the political center in New York, and the financial, organizational and administrative center in Jerusalem,” Flug, 77, said between closed- door meetings here on Tuesday.

But Flug also said he supported using some of the restitution funds for Holocaust education and memorials only “when there are no more survivors,” adding that most survivors live in Israel.

“The money should go first of all to the needy,” said Vladka Meed, a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto who fought in the Jewish underground in Poland.

“But that does not mean that all the money should go to survivors. Because there are future generations, and for the sake of history, we have to remember in order to prevent.”

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