Jewish groups are taking a wait-and-see attitude about Monday’s announcement that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce plans to set up a fund for American companies wishing to provide humanitarian assistance to Holocaust-era slave and forced laborers, including tens of thousands living in the U.S.
"Our position will be determined after we have detailed discussions with all concerned regarding who will be contributing and how the money will be used," said Gideon Taylor, executive vice president of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany. Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress, said his organization also would "not pass judgement until we see the specifics and discuss the project with [Deputy Treasury Secretary Stuart] Eizenstat and the Chamber of Commerce."
The chamber’s senior vice president for international, economic and national security affairs, Craig Johnstone, acknowledged that the announcement of the fund’s creation was "premature." He said it was made at the chamber’s meeting of the Center for Corporate Citizenship in Washington because "the story was breaking in the press."
The idea for a humanitarian fund first surfaced a year ago, Johnstone said, when several companies asked the chamber if it would accept donations in behalf of victims of Hurricane Mitch, which heavily damaged countries in the Caribbean. He said the chamber was not equipped to do that, but that it put them in touch with "the right people."
When an earthquake devastated parts of western Turkey later in the year and companies again called the chamber wanting to provide financial help, Johnstone said the chamber realized it needed to have a "mechanism to help companies consolidate their giving in the field of natural disasters."
The chamber’s Center for Corporate Citizenship began to study the issue in December. At that point, Johnstone said, "a couple of companies said that, if we set up such a fund, would we be willing to use it to alleviate the suffering of those victims of Nazism who had to serve as either forced or slave laborers? We said we would be delighted to play any facilitative role in that regard, provided we could work out the details."
He said that within the month, he hoped to meet with the companies and Eizenstat "to determine the organization that would distribute the funds to the victims. We don’t have the ability to do that, nor the expertise." Eizenstat has played a leading role in Holocaust restitution.
Johnstone said an individual fund would be created for victims of the Holocaust, and others would be created for natural disasters. He said he did not know the names of companies or the number of companies that would contribute to the Holocaust fund, nor the size of the fund. The chamber would not create a fund that would accept money for general purposes, he said.
Eizenstat, in remarks to the chamber, applauded the creation of the funds. He said that a number of American companies had approached him to ask that a way be found for them to supplement the $5 billion German Foundation that has been created to make reparations to forced and slave laborers.
"This would be a very important moral gesture," he said. "It will ease the situation of some who are most in need. Since only those slave laborers and those forced laborers living in the five nations of Central and Eastern Europe that participated in the talks are receiving specific national allocations of funds from the German Foundation, with 800 million DM ($400 million) set aside for those living elsewhere, such a fund would be especially meaningful for those survivors living in the rest of the world, including tens of thousands who are U.S. citizens."
Eizenstat said such a fund would "help ease the wounds of the past, avoid confrontation, and settle or prevent lawsuits and other potential pressures on American firms."
Johnstone noted that in addition to companies with subsidiaries in Nazi-occupied Europe, such as Ford, other firms not even in existence during the war have expressed interest in contributing to the fund, for purely humanitarian purposes.
Edward Fagan, a lawyer who has filed several class action suits against companies stemming from their actions during the Holocaust, said such a fund "might very well buy them legal closure. But if they are talking about a pittance, compared to their roles [during the war], that’s another story. … It would be nice if the American companies would set the example for the world and show that they don’t have to have law suits filed against them; that they want to do the right thing."
There are 3 million businesses in the United States and together they contribute $9 billion annually to philanthropic causes: four times what the U.S. gives in foreign aid, Johnstone noted. The aid funds the chamber proposes would supplement those contributions, he said.