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Behind the Headlines in Heartrending Testimony, Survivors Tell Court Why They Need Swiss Funds

Clara Schwartz grew up in Hungary, where her father owned a textile business and a winery.Then World War II erupted. Schwartz survived Auschwitz, immigrated to Brooklyn in 1956 and found work in a sweater factory.

Now an ailing widow at 81, Schwartz carries a satchel with a faded picture of her mother and a long list of the prescription medications she requires each month. She lives on $911 per month in social security payments and occasionally receives reparation payments of $900 from Germany — not enough for her to afford the $350 in pills she needs each month. Yet Schwartz refuses to seek assistance.

“I am very proud,” she says.

Schwartz was one of some 200 needy Holocaust survivors and groups from around the world appealing last week to the U.S. District Court of Eastern New York in Brooklyn, recounting tales of unimaginable heartbreak in the hope of gaining a share of the $1.25 billion Swiss banks settlement.

Estimates of the number of survivors in the United States range from 109,000 to 174,000. They are among 80 groups or entities — ranging from the Israeli government to Roma, or gypsies — vying for a share of nearly $600 million expected to be left over from the 1998 Swiss bank settlement after compensation is paid to survivors or their heirs whose bank accounts were taken from them.

So far, Judge Edward Korman, who is overseeing the settlement, has awarded $593 million of the settlement’s $1.25 billion, though only $155 million has gone to 2,000 of the estimated millions of Swiss bank account holders. The rest went to others who suffered because of Switzerland’s ties to Nazi Germany, including refugees and slave laborers in Swiss and German firms.

Under a legal principle known as cy pres, or “next best,” Korman and an adviser, Judah Gribetz, have signaled that the rest of the money should go to the world’s neediest survivors, who they say live in the former Soviet Union and Central Europe. In so doing, they stirred up a storm that converged last week on Korman’s courtroom.

Over 10 hours on April 29, survivors and groups made their heart-wrenching appeals to Korman. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which oversees social services for an estimated 225,000 Jews in the former Soviet Union, screened video interviews and presented biographies of survivors subsisting on pensions or other meager incomes of $155 to $420 a month.

“As someone who has observed poverty and deprivation around the world, those in the FSU are the poorest and the neediest on earth,” said Steve Schwager, the JDC’s executive vice president.

Also weighing in was the World Jewish Restitution Organization, which along with the Jewish Agency for Israel submitted eight bids for nearly 48 percent of the remaining money to aid 508,100 survivors in Israel — almost half of the survivors left in the world.

Natan Sharansky, Israel’s minister of Diaspora affairs, told Korman that the Israelis have “strong disagreements” with indications from Korman and Gribetz that survivors in the former Soviet Union should get top priority once Swiss account holders have been compensated.

Israeli survivors “must be taken into account,” said Sharansky, who spoke via video hookup from a Berlin conference on anti-Semitism.

Not lost on Sharansky was the irony that this former symbol of Soviet Jewry was angling for funds his former countrymen might otherwise receive.

“I know very well their needs,” he said, adding that 180,000 survivors have moved to Israel from the former Soviet Union since 1990.

Zev Factor, chairman of the Foundation for the Benefit of Holocaust Victims in Israel, which is seeking $941 million for health and home care for needy Israeli survivors, said their concerns are no less pressing than those of others.

Like other poor survivors, some 130,000 survivors in Israel must choose between food and medical care, Israeli officials said. Factor cited the case of a 92-year-old Haifa man who can’t afford a visiting heath aide.

“So he doesn’t remain in his own excrement all day, is that any less important than food?” Factor said.

The Israelis also have maintained that Korman should adhere to a general rule applied on other Holocaust restitution fronts, that 20 percent of all monies should go toward Holocaust education and remembrance. Nobel Prize-winning author and survivor Elie Wiesel underscored that point in a letter to Korman.

“Nothing has been mentioned about memory,” said Ruth Brand, 76, an Auschwitz survivor who volunteers at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial, in Israel.

Brand’s experience in the death camp — which she said “was not to be described” — and her tale of later marrying an American soldier and spawning three generations of descendants left many in the packed courtroom weeping.

Attorney Paul Berger of Washington said this was the first time in his 47 years in a courtroom that he had cried. As he struggled to maintain his composure, Berman lauded the judge for having the courage to face the dilemmas raised by competing survivor claims.

Korman is “wrestling with issues that have no answers,” Berman said. “How do you take resources that are inadequate to do justice?”

One possible solution, said Israel Singer, chairman of the World Jewish Restitution Organization, who also spoke by video hookup from Berlin, was for Korman to give more time to the various parties to “homogenize the various needs” of survivors and reach some consensus with which “we can all feel comfortable.”

One Jewish organizational official said Korman could allow the case to proceed on parallel tracks — allowing the competing parties to work out their differences while the court continues to press the Swiss banks for greater access to settlement money.

Whether the judge will follow that recommendation remains to be seen.

Much of the battle revolved around numbers. Sergio Della Pergola, a Hebrew University demographer, said that if one ignored factors of relative suffering and need, then demographic data should determine where the money goes. He challenged the JDC’s figures about the former Soviet Union, saying they revealed more about the efficiency of the group’s services than about actual survivor numbers.

But Leonard Saxe, a Brandeis University professor who led a report for the JDC and the court on survivor needs worldwide, disagreed.

While it was “odious” to compare survivor needs, Saxe said, he backed the report’s findings that the neediest survivors live in the former Soviet Union.

Still, Saxe welcomed the proposal to “resolve some of these differences.” Collaboration also would help evaluate how the various Holocaust programs aid survivors, he added, and thereby “hold the organizations that provide some of these services accountable.”

Korman is not expected to make any final decision for at least several weeks.

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