Op-Ed: Stop personal attacks on Claims Conference leaders

NEW YORK (JTA) — The recent international Conference on Holocaust Era Assets in Prague highlighted the plight of needy Holocaust survivors throughout the world. For the first time, 46 states endorsed the conclusion that “It is unacceptable that those who suffered so greatly during the earlier part of their lives should live under impoverished circumstances at the end,” and that “a high priority” must be to address “the social welfare needs of the most vulnerable elderly victims of Nazi persecution — such as hunger relief, medicine and home care as required, as well as measures that will encourage intergenerational contact and allow them to overcome their social isolation. These steps will enable them to live in dignity in the years to come.”

The conference at the end of June also dealt with other pressing unresolved issues arising out of the Holocaust, including the restitution of communal and private Jewish real property, looted Judaica and Jewish cultural property, Nazi-confiscated and looted art, the preservation of Jewish cemeteries and burial sites, the need to maintain the integrity of the sites of mass annihilation, and a categorical, unambiguous repudiation of Holocaust denial and trivialization.

The declaration issued at the end constitutes a comprehensive road map of the final phase of the complex Holocaust reparations and restitution process. Its adoption was due primarily to the tireless efforts of Stuart Eizenstat, who headed the U.S. delegation; J. Christian Kennedy, the State Department’s special envoy for Holocaust issues; and a group of dedicated professionals who ensured that experts and stakeholders alike had genuine input into the conference proceedings. Among the critical catalysts in the latter category are the members of the senior staff of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims against Germany, popularly known as the Claims Conference.

Without question, the Claims Conference is the single most important and effective body providing assistance to Holocaust survivors throughout the world. It also is frequently under attack by individuals and groups that take issue with its process of allocating funds.

No organization should be immune from criticism. However, some of the charges directed against the Claims Conference are out of control. Among the most commonly heard accusations are that the organization’s leadership is somehow hostile to Holocaust survivors. This canard must finally be laid to rest.

First, prominent Holocaust survivors are integral members of the Claims Conference and its committees. Roman Kent, chairman of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants, serves as the Claims Conference treasurer and has been a key figure in its negotiations with Germany together with Holocaust survivors Noach Flug from Israel and Ben Helfgott from England.

Sam Bloch, the president of the American Gathering, is a member of the Claims Conference Executive Committee, and American Gathering Senior Vice President Max Liebmann has been appointed as one of a number of ad personam members of the Claims Conference board.

Three organizations of Holocaust survivors are full members of the Claims Conference, and survivors are prominently represented on all of the organization’s committees.

More importantly, while one may certainly disagree with individual allocations and actions of the Claims Conference, the integrity of its leaders and their dedication to the needs and welfare of Holocaust survivors is beyond question.

Rabbi Julius Berman, the chairman of the Claims Conference, is a highly respected attorney in New York, a former chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and past president of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations in America. In the interest of full disclosure, I once worked closely with Julie for several years at his law firm, Kaye Scholer LLP, and have always found him to be a man of the highest integrity who devotes himself wholeheartedly to Jewish causes, including the plight of needy Holocaust survivors.

Reuven Merhav, chairman of the Claims Conference Executive Committee, was born in Haifa shortly after his parents had immigrated to Palestine from Nazi Germany. He is a former director general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry and played a key role in the rescue of Ethiopian Jews.

In the late 1930s Merhav’s father, Walter Markowicz, lacked the 500 pounds sterling to purchase a certificate to enable his own father, Reuven’s grandfather, to escape Germany and settle in Palestine.

"I am with the Claims Conference because I have been scalded personally," Merhav has explained. "My father never talked about it at home, but we knew he had not succeeded in getting Grandpa out. In April 1942, Grandpa was transported from Breslau to Theresienstadt and perished there half a year later.”

Eizenstat, the Claims Conference’s special negotiator responsible for the German negotiations since earlier this year, served as U.S. ambassador to the European Union, under secretary of commerce for international trade, under secretary of state for economic, business and agricultural affairs, and deputy secretary of the Treasury in the Clinton administration.

Throughout that period, he also obtained more than $8 billion in compensation and restitution for Holocaust survivors, including payments to slave and forced laborers, the return of thousands of Jewish communal and private properties, the payments of tens of thousands of previously undisclosed bank accounts, the recovery of hundreds of pieces of looted art, and the payments on thousands of insurance policies.

Indeed, it is thanks to his selfless dedication and tireless efforts that the issue of providing a measure of justice for Holocaust survivors more than half a century after the end of World War II has been placed at the forefront of the international community’s agenda.

This year alone, the negotiations spearheaded by Eizenstat and Kent resulted in 13,000 survivors who previously had been turned down becoming eligible for reparations for the first time, and in the improvement in existing pension payments to survivors totaling more than $50 million.

I am not suggesting that legitimate criticisms of the Claims Conference should not be aired, but it would behoove all involved to focus on constructive solutions that benefit the survivors rather than engaging in disingenuous personal attacks.

(Menachem Z. Rosensaft, the son of two survivors of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, is vice president of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants and adjunct professor of law at Cornell Law School. He was a member of the U.S. delegation to the June 2009 Prague Conference on Holocaust Era Assets.)

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