Holocaust survivors dealing with the sometimes mystifying restitution process now can get help in filling out the forms.
The newly created Holocaust Compensation Assistance Project will offer the assistance on claims for the German Slave and Forced Labor fund and the Swiss bank settlement, as well as other free legal help and support to survivors and their families.
"Obtaining compensation and restitution can be a confusing and emotional process," said Gideon Taylor, executive vice president of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany. "The Holocaust Compensation Assistant Project will help survivors in seeking a measure of justice."
The Claims Conference, along with UJA-Federation of New York and the New York Legal Assistance Group, is cosponsoring the $150,000 project. It is believed that about 40,000 to 50,000 survivors, mostly in their 70s and older, live in the New York area.
"It’s a sacred obligation for us to ease the burdens of those who have suffered so much," said John Ruskay, executive director of UJA-Federation.
Earlier this month the project began working with health and human services personnel who serve this vulnerable population, according to its director, Laura Davis.
"We’ve had two training sessions at the offices of Selfhelp Community Services in Manhattan," said Davis. "In the first session, which lasted nearly two hours, we had about 40 social workers from the different offices of Selfhelp. We had a second session for about 20 non-Selfhelp social workers, such as those from JASA [Jewish Association for Services for the Aged]."
Arie Bucheister of the Claims Conference conducted the workshops, she said, to bring social workers "up to speed about what is happening with the Swiss and German funds. We also went through the Hardship Fund and other funds [for survivors administered by the Claims Conference] that social workers deal with on a regular basis."
Davis said that although social workers often deal with survivors who receive benefits from these funds, Bucheister was able to offer a "complete overview." Social workers also were taught where survivors may get additional help.
Although many survivors and heirs (560,000 worldwide) filled out questionnaires in connection with the Swiss bank settlement, Davis said new forms would have to be completed to actually file a claim for the money. The fund is expected to start paying out early next year.
"The hope is that these forms will be much simpler and user friendly," she said.Karen Taylor, director of development for the New York Legal Assistance Group, a UJA-Federation agency, said Davis was selected to head the assistance project because she is both a social worker and a lawyer.
"She is training the staff here in how to address the emotions of people who filled out forms that dredged up emotions, only to find the litigation drag on for years," said Taylor. "There is trauma to being a survivor and being old and frail and trying to get help."
To be eligible for payment from the German fund, Davis said, a survivor had to be in a ghetto or concentration camp. Unlike some other funds, there is no minimum time period survivors had to be in the ghetto or camp to benefit from this fund, which is expected to be available by early November.
"All persons who performed slave labor for private entities, those owned or controlled by the state or by Nazi authorities, or by the concentration camp or ghetto authorities will be eligible for compensation," said Davis.
He said the approximately 140,000 Jewish former slave laborers and 30,000 Jews who were in forced labor will each receive about $7,300, probably in two installments.
A portion of the $5.4 billion German Foundation fund is also slated to benefit others who were persecuted: Jehovah’s Witnesses, the physically and mentally disabled, gypsies and homosexuals. Davis said they are to receive about $2,500 each.
Once the form for the German fund is available, Davis said project workers plan to go into the community to explain the process and help people complete the paperwork.
"We plan to go to a central location and hold forums with survivors so that they can ask questions and we can deal with their particular needs," she said. "We’d go to a large room in a social service agency, for instance, and people from the local neighborhood would be invited. Although the German and Swiss funds have received the most publicity, there are also questions that people have about the other compensation programs."
There are plans also to visit the homes of shut-ins and various community centers.
Taylor said the project has set up a hot-line that will be staffed from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays to answer the questions of survivors and their heirs regarding claims and other matters.
"A lot of them are calling to find out what they should be expecting to do next and asking about other related issues," said Taylor. "They want to know such things as how they can get Meals on Wheels and how they can prepare to answer the questions that will be on the form."
The phone is staffed by more than 200 law students, volunteer attorneys, social workers, Hillel students and other volunteers trained to handle queries. The phone number to request assistance is (212) 688-0710.