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With Survivors Leading the Talks, Germany Agrees to Up Home Care

Every May in Berlin brings the annual meeting between representatives of the German government and the Claims Conference, the main organization representing Holocaust survivors around the world. But there was something different about the conference’s talks May 18 with the German Foreign Ministry, which aimed at filling in gaps in Holocaust compensation and pushing for recognition of more survivors. This year, the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II, the Claims Conference’s negotiating committee was led by survivors.

“I was just the traffic cop,” said Israel Singer, president of the Claims Conference and chairman of the committee, who said he “changed its structure so the politicians would hear not from me, but from the survivors.”

The talks resulted in an additional payment of $11.4 million for home care for needy Jewish survivors in 17 countries, on top of $7.2 million agreed to after negotiations last year.

In addition, survivors of several slave labor camps were added to those who receive pensions from Germany. Survivors incarcerated for at least six months in certain camps in Hungary, Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria who meet certain criteria are eligible.

A spokesman for Germany’s Finance Ministry told JTA that the government doesn’t comment on the annual meetings. Claims Conference members weren’t so reticent, however.

Roman Kent, an Auschwitz survivor and chairman of the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors, said the message he brought to the table was, “Let’s not concentrate only on the dead, let’s do something for the needy survivors.”

The negotiating team “was able to convey our feelings, and some of our concerns were addressed,” Kent told JTA in a phone interview from Washington, where he was attending meetings of the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims.

Kent said that since survivor organizations first were brought into the Claims Conference 12 years ago, “the meetings move forward at a better rate.”

“Nobody can understand that they killed 6 million people,” Kent said. “The number is too large. But if you bring it to an individual level, it means something.”

German feelings of guilt and responsibility for the past are not as keen as they used to be, but Germany remains committed to helping survivors, Singer said in an interview with JTA following the talks.

Singer’s Berlin visit concluded May 19 with a meeting at the Ministry of Health and Social Security to discuss Germany’s so-called “ghetto pension law.”

On May 13, several members of the U.S. Congress sent a letter to German Health Minister Ulla Schmidt urging her to address problems encountered by pension applicants, such as being told that their ghettos did not exist at the times claimed or that certain categories of labor were excluded.

A ministry spokesperson told JTA that the discussions were positive and that Schmidt would respond to the letter soon.

With the agreement on home-care funds finished, Singer said he had “a feeling of ‘genugtun,’ a sense of personal satisfaction that I haven’t had in the last 15 years, knowing that no Holocaust survivor in the next three years will go to sleep hungry or alone.”

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