Schneider: Restitution money is running out, and Europe needs to step up

Gregory Schneider became the top professional at the Claims Conference, executive vice president, in July 2009. (Claims Conference)

Gregory Schneider became the top professional at the Claims Conference, executive vice president, in July 2009. (Claims Conference)

Q&A

NEW YORK (JTA) — Gregory Schneider was promoted recently to the top professional position at the Claims Conference, executive vice president, after several years as chief operating officer. JTA Managing Editor Uriel Heilman sat down with Schneider at the New York headquarters of the Claims Conference after Schneider’s first week at his new job to talk about how negotiations with the Germans are going, how the Claims Conference doles out restitution money and the challenge of helping Holocaust survivors live out their final years. The following is a condensed version of their conversation.

JTA: What leverage do you have as you negotiate with Germany and other European nations for Holocaust restitution?

Schneider: Justice. The suffering is tremendous — what occurred and what remains. The most effective tool we have is to remind them that these are people who are desperately in need, and what happened to them at the hands of the Nazis is a major contributing factor — if not the most contributing factor. There are other things as well — political pressure and public relations pressure. We try and do everything we can to make people in Germany and people around the world understand why we come with these demands and what they’re based on.

JTA: How has it been going?

Schneider: It’s been increasingly difficult. The needs of survivors are increasing, the time is running out and at the same time the reality is that in Germany people are saying, ‘OK, we’ve done a significant amount of compensation, how much more is expected?’

JTA: What are some of the things you’re pressing for?

Schneider: Home care, so survivors can remain in their own homes. Pensions for 8,000 concentration camp survivors who do not receive any. Payment for nearly 100,000 Nazi victims in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union who do not qualify for the Hardship Fund because they never left their home countries. More money for social welfare services that for some survivors will mean the difference between a hot meal and no meal, between seeing a doctor and not seeing a doctor.

JTA: Of the money the Claims Conference gets from the sale of unclaimed Jewish properties from the former East Germany, which goes to the Claims Conference’s so-called Successor Organization, you allocate more than $100 million per year along an 80-20 split — 80 percent to social welfare programs for Nazi victims, 20 percent to Holocaust education, documentation and research. With the survivors in their final years, doesn’t it make sense to put the education portion on hold and give all of the money to survivors’ welfare needs?

Schneider: We have increased pretty dramatically the amount we are giving. It used to be $90 million per year. Over the past four or five years it’s risen to $100 million, then $110 million. As we increased the amount past $90 million, the board decided to cap the educational portion to 20 percent of $90 million. So this year, only $18 million out of $116 million actually went to education. The rest went to social welfare programs.

We’ve also been supplementing our social welfare allocations with money from other sources — the Swiss banks settlement, the Hungarian gold train settlement, funds from ICHEIC [the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims], etc. This year, the amount we allocated to social welfare programs reached $173 million, plus the $18 million for Holocaust education. So the split isn’t really 80-20 anymore.

JTA: But why not give all of it to social welfare needs, especially if survivors are, as you say, in desperate need?

Schneider: We understand that people who are upset about it are people who want more resources for social welfare. The board understands that, which is why we’ve increased the allocations. But I think there’s also a recognition by the board that the money specifically from the Successor Organization is from people who were murdered, and the board feels that there’s an obligation to remember who they are, how they lived and how they died.

JTA: Income from the various settlements, as well as from the sale of heirless assets, is drying up. But survivors are dying, too. Because there will be fewer survivors, will the need for aid decline apace with the diminished restitution income?

Schneider: All of our demographic studies show that survivors will outlive the money we have to provide them with services, so we need to identify and secure other sources of funding. Over the past few years, anticipating this, we have gone to the German government and tried to explain this issue of needs. If allocations for social wefare were to drop off steeply, the result would be far too catastrophic to even contemplate. Not having that money would affect people’s lives — how long they live and how they live. This is unconscionable and cannot be allowed to happen.

JTA: At the close of the Holocaust Era Assets Conference in Prague in June, 46 countries signed the Terezin Declaration, a nonbinding set of guiding principles aimed at faster, more open and transparent restitution of private and communal property taken by force during the Holocaust. Will this prompt countries like Lithuania and Poland, which haven’t done much on restitution, to act?

Schneider: I think the Prague conference added some momentum while there’s still time to help survivors. It put the social welfare needs of survivors on the table and brought up property restitution in the other countries of Eastern Europe, which is important because the use of unclaimed property, unclaimed assets, in all of these settlements has funded virtually all of the social welfare needs of survivors.

What we’re saying to countries like Lithuania and Poland is you must enact legislation for the return of property, but even in advance of doing that, now is the time to provide a down payment so that we can apply the money now to social welfare needs of Holocaust survivors. That’s why we’re pushing so strongly for an international fund for the relief of Holocaust survivors with funding from the EU and from specific countries of Eastern Europe to join whatever resources are available in the Jewish world and the funding we get from Germany. The whole package together can provide funding in these final years.

It’s not that we’re coming seeking money; we’re offering these countries an opportunity to do the right thing.

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