WASHINGTON, May 14 (JTA) There is something going on in the world of Holocaust restitution and it’s called confusion.
Amid a morass of funds being established by Swiss banks, insurance companies and German firms that used slave labor, survivors and their heirs are finding it difficult if not impossible to figure out what kind of compensation they may be entitled to.
And they are unsure what steps they need to take to receive payment.
“I’m so confused,” said Peggy Tredler, a survivor of Auschwitz who lives in Hollywood, Fla., who thinks she is eligible for several forms of compensation. “I really don’t know what to do.”
Many become outraged when they think they have to pay for assistance with their claims.
The catch is, they don’t. Every fund has or will establish assistance for claimants.
The International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims, for example, has already set up a free claims process for those who have been unable to collect on insurance policies taken out before World War II.
But most of the funds are not yet established and are not near the point of accepting claims and disbursing money.
Nevertheless, some lawyers are signing up survivors and assisting them with their applications and charging fees for their services.
It’s not illegal, but many feel it’s unethical or at least in poor taste.
And officials involved in restitution efforts say they are concerned about a few unscrupulous lawyers taking advantage of vulnerable individuals.
Survivors, meanwhile, are flustered by offers of assistance, and some are uncertain about whether or not they should get a lawyer.
Emmi Loewenstern, a survivor who lives in Philadelphia, said a family member gave her a phone number to call about a one-time compensation for survivors of concentration camps or ghettos.
The number turned out to be for Yaffa Golan Investments and Finances, a group based in Israel that works to assist Holocaust survivors with claims for a number of different funds.
When Loewenstern received the application, she saw that she would have to sign away her power of attorney.
“I wouldn’t dream of giving that up,” she said.
She was also incensed that Golan charges up to a 10 percent fee of the compensation award.
“We should pay? We’re only waiting 55 years” for compensation, she said angrily.
Responding to these concerns, Golan, who is not an attorney but employs attorneys on her staff, said people can handle their claims alone, but some prefer professional assistance to help them fight through the bureaucracy.
On her Web site under explanations about German compensation for survivors of concentration camps, Golan lists the addresses of the Claims Conference in the United States, Israel and Germany. As for the slave and forced labor funds, she said she keeps her clients informed about their current status.
Rick Landman of New York said his father contacted Golan after seeing her ad in the Forward newspaper that advertised compensation for Holocaust survivors.
Landman urged his father not to sign the forms from Golan. He said lawyers who charge fees from survivors who don’t know they can get help for free are “entrepreneurial gonifs,” using the Yiddish word for thieves.
Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress, said he finds these lawyers’ practices “troubling.”
If individuals have property claims, there may be a need for a lawyer because there are often complicated questions of municipal law, Steinberg said, but in most cases a lawyer is unnecessary.
“They will not get funding any faster with a lawyer,” he said. “There’s this impression that you will do better if you have a lawyer; you won’t.”
Survivors may see reports of negotiations for compensation and think they should apply right away. For example, the forced and slave labor negotiations have been in the news lately and the fund is about $5.2 billion. Compensation awards will be up to $2,500 for each forced laborers and up to $7,500 for each slave laborer.
But promises of money from the slave labor fund are premature because the German government has yet to pass the legislation required for the fund. The government also must take administrative steps before any disbursal of funds can take place.
Roman Kent, a participant in the negotiations with the Germans, said many survivors not just in the United States, but also around the world are confused about their claims and feel more secure if they get a lawyer.
But Kent, who is also chairman of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, said much of the confusion stems from misleading statements and ads from lawyers.
Gideon Taylor, executive vice president of the Claims Conference, which anticipates handling many applications for slave labor compensation, says the claims forms, which could be available by the fall, will be “simple, clear and easy to fill in.”
Taylor also said there will be a major outreach program, and public announcements will be made to hundreds of survivor groups.
Meanwhile, Tredler, the survivor from Florida, is left wondering how to proceed. She said she was contacted by a lawyer a long time ago about getting payments from “a fund set up by Swiss banks.”
After filling out an application, she expected hundreds of dollars in compensation for both herself and her husband, but she never heard anything further.
She said she has not been able to get any answers from the lawyer who initially contacted her.
That lawyer, Ed Fagan, who has been involved in many aspects of Holocaust-era restitution, including several class actions lawsuits, did not respond to several phone calls for comment.
Now Tredler is apprehensive about the applications she has sent in for insurance claims.
How to file a restitution claim
Following are telephone numbers and Web sites for information about how to file Holocaust-related claims.
The International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims has set up a process to handle insurance claims of Holocaust victims, survivors, and their heirs and beneficiaries.
For claim forms and more information, call toll-free in the United States, (800) 957-3203.
Information is also available on the Internet at http://www.icheic.org.
PAYMENTS FROM GERMANY AND AUSTRIA
The Claims Conference has negotiated compensation payments for Holocaust victims from Germany and Austria. There are several programs, with varying eligibility requirements and application deadlines.
For further information in the United States, call (212) 696-4944 and ask for the Department of Services. In Israel, call (972-3) 517-9247; in Germany, (49-69) 970-701-21; in Austria, (43-1) 533-1622.
Detailed information about these programs is also available at http://www.claimscon.org.
GERMAN SLAVE LABOR PAYMENTS
A process for making claims has not yet been created. The Claims Conference promises that the “application form will be short, simple and non-bureaucratic,” but says the application process will not begin before the fall.
NEW YORK STATE HOLOCAUST CLAIMS PROCESSING OFFICE
The office helps people seeking to recover assets deposited in European banks, monies never paid in connection with insurance policies issued by European insurance companies and art that was lost or looted.
For information, call (800) 695-3318 in the United States. Information is also available on the Internet at http://www.claims.state.ny.us.
In August 1998, Switzerland’s leading banks agreed to pay $1.25 billion to settle Holocaust-era claims. A U.S. court still has to approve a distribution plan. Once that happens, information about how to file a claim will be made available in a worldwide ad campaign.
Potential claimants can also obtain information by contacting their local Jewish federation or Jewish family service agency.