NEW YORK (JTA) — At Rosh Hashanah 5706, 65 years ago, World War II had just ended. For those few European Jews who had survived the Holocaust, the end of the war meant a slow and painful process of beginning anew and trying to rebuild shredded lives. While at Rosh Hashanah we all contemplate renewal and beginnings, those survivors had no choice but to begin again.
For 59 of those 65 years, the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany (Claims Conference) has been there to help those survivors rebuild,
establish lives and obtain a small measure of justice. Through decades of negotiations with governments and industry, of issuing payments and recovering assets, of continually pushing for historic recognition of victims’ rights, the Claims Conference has been a singular, historic endeavor.
There is no making whole again or setting right what was destroyed, but we must achieve recognition of suffering and some relief to those who suffer today.
As we begin a new year this Rosh Hashanah, we renew our dedication to this task. We all have an obligation not just to help Holocaust survivors but to ensure that our words and actions do not work to their detriment.
Critics of the Claims Conference who claim to have the best interests of Holocaust victims at heart have publicly voiced untruths recently about the organization that ultimately can harm survivors. The myth has been perpetuated that the Claims Conference has $1 billion at its disposal that could be used to aid elderly survivors in need but is not.
The billion-dollar myth arose from willful misinterpretation of the publicly available year-end statement of Claims Conference Liabilities and Net Assets. Even a cursory review of these financials debunks the myth.
The statement details how Claims Conference funds, as of Dec. 31, are earmarked for programs and payments to benefit Holocaust victims and their heirs. Funds are designated for payments to certain heirs of properties lost in the Holocaust; allocations already made to organizations providing vital services to Holocaust victims like food packages, home care and emergency cash aid; and for grants over the next four years in order to continue these services as restitution-related funds dwindle.
Perpetuating the billion-dollar myth as fact misleads needy Holocaust survivors into believing that there is a pot of gold on the other side of a locked door that, if opened, would greatly alleviate the physical and mental conditions in which they are suffering. This is the height of irresponsibility and is shameful.
The damage to survivors from the myth runs even deeper. The Claims Conference has an urgent mission to obtain additional resources to help them. Negotiations with governments, 65 years after the end of the war and in the midst of the world financial crisis, become more difficult every year. But if governments are led to believe that the Claims Conference has $1 billion at its disposal, why would they provide restitution at this stage?
Despite all the obstacles, the Claims Conference has been uniquely successful in increasing the funds available for survivors.
Over recent years, Claims Conference negotiations with Germany have resulted in pensions and one-time payments for Holocaust victims who previously were ineligible for payments under German government guidelines. We continue to press the principle that every Jewish victim of Nazi persecution is entitled to symbolic acknowledgement of their suffering with payments from Germany.
We are working intensively to press the issue of property restitution in Eastern Europe. Jewish assets in many countries still have not been returned or compensated for, and governments have been unwilling to enact laws to ensure that Holocaust victims or their heirs are able to file claims to recover family properties that were stolen or lost so many decades ago.
Restitution of communal and heirless assets in these countries could translate into hot meals, wheelchairs and housing aid for elderly survivors. We will not be deterred by intransigence on the other side.
In just a few more years, most of the Claims Conference funds that provide vital services for Holocaust victims will be gone, but many elderly survivors will still be with us. Holocaust victims who have been receiving food packages, medicine, home care and emergency cash grants cannot suddenly be cut off from these vital services.
The Claims Conference has been working to identify and obtain additional sources of funding to continue paying for these and other services to Holocaust victims, but we cannot do it alone. Rather than criticizing the Claims Conference — the one organization that distributed more than $700 million last year for survivors and heirs — others in the Jewish community would better serve Holocaust victims by engaging in dedicated fund-raising in order to continue providing them with dignified and substantive care.
With such pressing tasks confronting us, nothing will deter us from our vital mission.
(Julius Berman is chairman of the Claims Conference. He also is a JTA board member.)