NEW YORK, Aug. 2 (JTA) — Gisela Schlanger had tears running down her face as she described her plans for the payment she was to receive this week from Germany for her Holocaust-era slave labor. “My aim after the Holocaust was to raise my children frum-Yiddish,” she said, explaining that she strived to bring up a religious family committed to Jewish tradition. “My children are talmidei chachamim” — Torah scholars, she said. “I have a very special grandson, a tzadik. The money I get I give him to buy sforim,” or books of Judaica. Each book will carry a memorial inscription for family members murdered by the Nazis, Schlanger said. Schlanger spoke Monday at a Claims Conference news conference in New York called to announce new payments to Jewish slave laborers. A survivor from Slovakia, Schlanger was one of 130,681 survivors from 62 countries who were sent payments of about $3,000 this week by the Claims Conference. The payout, totaling some $401 million, represented the second and final installment of payments from a $1.1 billion slave labor agreement with Germany. It was the largest-ever single Holocaust payout in history, according to officials at the Claims Conference, which administers the Jewish portion of compensation payments from Germany to Nazi-era slave laborers. The money comes from a $5 billion fund paid for by the German government and 6,000 German businesses, only some of which benefited from Jewish slave labor. Most recipients are non-Jews. “The payment carries a value that cannot be measured in dollars,” said Aron Krell, 76, a Polish-born survivor. “This money can never compensate me for the loss of my family, my childhood or even for all the work that I performed. No amount ever could,” he said. “But I do feel some satisfaction from receiving payment, however symbolic, as a recognition by the German government and companies of the terrible wrongs they inflicted on us. We have waited a very long time for this acknowledgment, this apology.” As a volunteer for the Claims Conference, Krell has worked the phones helping Polish- and Yiddish-speaking survivors understand what they need to do to get their claims processed and assuaging their anxieties about when they will get paid. Combined with the first payment, which was paid to claimants as soon as their claim of having been a forced laborer was verified and processed, ex-slave laborers received a total of about $7,500. The Claims Conference’s news conference Monday brought to a close one of the conference’s central tasks: finding survivors and verifying their accounts of forced labor by the Nazis. “One of the biggest challenges we faced was documenting the cases of over a quarter of a million applications,” said Gideon Taylor, the Claims Conference’s executive vice president. “The program required the identification of every place where slave labor was performed during the Holocaust.” Perhaps the most valuable aspect of the Claims Conference’s work — aside from providing some measure of compensation to survivors — was the historical facts about the Holocaust that the work helped bring to light, conference officials said. “What it’s really about is the history,” Taylor said. “The legacy of today’s payment is documentation.” Since the agreement to establish the slave labor fund was signed in 2000, researchers have been combing through more than 150 archives in 30 countries looking for data to verify survivors’ claims. That research resulted in a wealth of new historical documentation. In some cases, it also yielded additional payments to survivors. For example, just last month, newly unearthed documentation by the Claims Conference about 112 Nazi-era labor camps in Bulgaria convinced the German government to add Bulgaria to the list of countries for which former slave laborers could apply for compensation. Earlier this year, 1,778 victims of Nazi medical experiments identified by the Claims Conference received one-time compensation payments from Germany of about $5,400 each. Now, one of the researchers who worked on the project is writing a doctoral dissertation on the information the organization was able to uncover. “There is a treasure trove of information here,” said Greg Schneider, the Claims Conference’s chief operating officer. This week’s payout also meant that the job is over for many of the 200 or so historians, data processors, technology experts and claims processors who worked at the Claims Conference in New York collecting data, processing claims and administering payments. Conference officials said that even as the organization is letting many employees go, it is hiring legal and financial experts for the group’s next big task: finding the rightful owners and heirs of Holocaust-era Swiss bank accounts. The Claims Conference is helping locate the original owners of the Holocaust-era accounts covered by the landmark $1.25 billion Swiss banks settlement, reached in 1998. According to the settlement’s terms, once all the owners of Holocaust-era Swiss bank accounts are found and compensated, U.S. District Court Judge Edward Korman will decide how to distribute any remaining money. The debate over how that unclaimed money should be distributed has been intense, but a deal approved last week by the Swiss government may render the debate moot. The agreement between the Claims Conference, the Swiss banks and the U.S. court administering the settlement will result in the publication of an additional 5,000 names of Holocaust-era Swiss account owners, allow the Claims Conference limited access to search certain bank records and check Jewish claimants against records of 4.1 million Swiss bank accounts. It likely will find additional account holders and very well could use up all the money in the settlement. Coincidentally, the project, which Claims Conference officials estimate will take 12 to 18 months, was slated to begin the same day the conference announced its conclusion of the slave-labor program. “It’s symbolic of the Claims Conference view that the work is never complete,” Schneider said. “There is no way to resolve what happened.”
Uriel Heilman is JTA's former managing editor. He is now director of business development at 70 Faces Media. Follow him on Twitter at @urielheilman.