Allocating Justice? Claims Group Manages Billions, and Most Praise the Job It Does

Nearly every part of the Claims Conference’s allocations process is closely scrutinized and beset by at least some criticism — but allocations comprise only a small slice of the entire Holocaust- restitution pie.

When it comes to most of the other funds the Claims Conference administers, most Jewish leaders and survivor advocates agree that the Claims Conference does a laudable job.

The conference administers hundreds of millions of dollars each year, most of it payments from the German government to Holocaust survivors.

In 2002, the last year for which records are available, the conference had revenues of $826 million and made payments of approximately $765 million.

The conference spends about $26 million annually on administrative overhead.

Among the funds the Claims Conference administers or manages are:

The German slave-labor fund: Claimants able to prove they were slave laborers under the Nazis are paid $9,450. They receive two-thirds of that sum immediately, and will receive the remainder once all claims have been processed. The deadline for filing slave-labor claims has passed.

Many beneficiaries of this $5 billion dollar fund are non-Jews, and the Claims Conference administers only the Jewish portion of the payouts. So far, the conference has distributed more than $650 million. The source of the money is the German government and German businesses.

Swiss banks settlement: Every Jewish slave-labor claimant also receives a one-time payment from the Swiss banks settlement of about $1,450. To date, the Claims Conference has distributed more than $200 million from this fund to former slave laborers.

The conference is consulted but does not administer the balance of this $1.25 billion fund, which is being overseen by Judge Edward Korman of U.S. Federal Court in Brooklyn. Survivor representatives have gone to court to argue that they are not getting enough of this money. Korman appointed a “special master,” Judah Gribetz, to develop a plan for allocating this money.

Korman also asked the Claims Conference to administrator on behalf of the court a 10-year, $32.6 million program that provides emergency assistance to needy Holocaust survivors outside the former Soviet Union.

Hardship fund: Victims of Nazism who meet certain persecution-related criteria are eligible for one-time payments from the Claims Conference of about $3,200. The Hardship Fund has paid out more than $800 million since 1980.

Article 2 and Central and Eastern European Funds pension-plans: Jews who meet certain criteria — having been concentration-camp inmates for more than six months, say, or ghetto prisoners for more than 18 months — may receive monthly pension payments from the Claims Conference if they also meet financial-need criteria.

The Claims conference so far has identified about 80,000 Jews eligible for such payments. Residents of Western countries receive about $320 per month; residents of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union receive about $160 per month.

Successor Organization: This fund is made up of proceeds from the sale of assets in East Germany originally owned by Jews but seized by the Nazis during World War II. Owners or heirs able to demonstrate ownership of these assets are compensated with the proceeds from their sale. Money from the sale of unclaimed assets is allocated along an 80/20 split where 80 percent goes to social-welfare groups that benefit survivors and 20 percent goes to Holocaust education.

More than $1 billion has come into this fund since it was created in 1992, and more is added each year. So far, about $800 million has been allocated or paid out.

International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims: Headed by former U.S. Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger, this commission helps identify and resolve claims survivors have filed related to unpaid Holocaust-era life-insurance policies. ICHEIC determines the overall allocations. The Claims Conference administers payment of $132 million over nine years to welfare agencies that benefit survivors, which was set aside from unclaimed, or heirless, insurance policies.

In addition to these funds, the German government has paid more than $50 billion to Jews worldwide under the original German federal indemnification law, which the Claims Conference helped negotiate in the years after the Holocaust, according to the executive vice president of the conference, Gideon Taylor.

The Claims Conference was created in 1951 primarily to advocate for compensation and restitution from Germany and Austria. Years later, the World Jewish Restitution Organization was created to advocate for compensation and restitution from other countries complicit in the Holocaust.

However, because of the Claims Conference’s expertise in administering payments and verifying claims, numerous European governments use the conference to administer their own funds for Holocaust victims, conference officials said.

To manage the gargantuan task of administering the payouts, the Claims Conference employs a staff of about 200 in New York to collect data, process claims and administer payments. The staff is in constant touch with researchers and experts at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington and at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem, who verify claims.

The staff includes historians, data processors, technology experts and claims processors. There are 17 languages spoken fluently among staff members, and employees work in two daily shifts to process claims, the second ending at 2 a.m.

Staff members must work at a furious pace to process as many claims as possible by the deadlines agreed to in settlements between the Claims Conference and European governments.

Some observers have called for the dissolution of the Claims Conference, saying the group should give away all the money it has as quickly as it can and put itself out of business.

But Taylor says the Claims Conference is needed both to ensure that survivors are cared for in coming years, when they will grow more feeble and needy, and to conduct ongoing negotiations with the Germans over additional property restitution and expansion of existing compensation funds.

“You can never have closure with the entity that is the successor of the Third Reich,” Taylor said.

NEXT STORY