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Signing of symbolic document marks ongoing German commitment to survivors

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BERLIN (JTA) — German and Jewish officials signed a symbolic document marking Germany’s ongoing commitment to aging survivors

In ceremonies Thursday at The Jewish Museum, Julius Berman, the chairman of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, joined German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schauble in signing the agreement, which marked 60 years since West Germany first agreed to pay reparations to Holocaust survivors.

Attending the ceremony were survivors, German government officials and representatives of the Claims Conference who have been involved in negotiations for compensation over the decades.

In all, about $70 billion in compensation has been paid in the form of pensions, one-time payments, home health care and other benefits for survivors around the world.

This summer, payments also were approved for Jews in the former Soviet Union who had to flee the oncoming German army in 1941 — "flight victims," explained Stuart Eizenstat, a longtime Claims Conference special negotiator.

Eizenstat told JTA he was most impressed over the years with "self-initiated" soul searching by German ministries, leading to publications exposing the role of various ministries during World War II.

"They have incorporated the notion of doing justice, not only in financial terms [through compensation] but in terms of making sure that this history is fully understood," said Eizenstat, a top official in the Carter and Clinton administrations.

Berman said Thursday’s agreement was a way for Germany to tell its own people "that it is not over; that they have a continuing  obligation as long as there is a single survivor living, to do whatever we can to make their life more comfortable in their last days, weeks and years."

He recalled visiting an elderly survivor in Ukraine who was bedridden, with no one to help her get to her outhouse in the back yard. It drove the message home, he said, that many survivors urgently require home care — especially those who were torn from their homes as children and don’t ever want to leave again.

Among several local survivors invited to the ceremony was Mark Wsyelyubskiy, 82, who moved to Potsdam from Minsk in Belarus 10 years ago. While he received a one-time payment as a "flight victim," his younger sister, Svetlana Dishovaya, who still lives in Minsk, only just became eligible. The siblings had fled their hometown of Bobrusk with their mother as war broke out; they were later reunited with their father.

Today, he said, "life is very hard for my sister," Wsyelyubskiy told JTA. "She gets a small pension. So this will be very important to her."

Among Thursday’s speakers were Berman; Eizenstat; Schauble; Jewish Museum Director Michael Blumenthal; Claims Conference treasurer Roman Kent; Claims Conference Executive Committee Chairman Reuven Merhav; and Werner Gatzer, state secretary of the ministry of finance.

In his remarks, Gatzer said he promised an elderly Auschwitz survivor in New York that he would tell his children about their meeting.

"She told me that the help is good, but if you tell your children about this, it is the best thing you can do," he said.

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