Lawyers for slave-laborers urged to help survivors


BERLIN, June 26 (JTA) — Days after the first group of Holocaust-era slave laborers in Germany received their compensation checks, the leader of German Jewry is calling on the lawyers involved to donate some of their fees to the survivors.

On Sunday, Paul Spiegel, the president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, publicly urged the lawyers to turn over some of the more than $50 million recently awarded them.

“Earning money should not come before moralistic intentions,” he said.

Even the $50 million or so due the lawyers represents a much lower percentage — about 1 percent of the total payments — than lawyers usually receive as a contingency fee.

Spiegel’s statement came after German officials announced last Friday that they may not be able to pay the full sums promised to the slave and forced laborers.

The foundation administering the approximately $5 billion compensation fund said it had expected around 1.2 million applicants but is now estimating 1.5 million, and that late applicants may receive less money.

The lower house of the German Parliament is expected to vote this week to extend the deadline for applications from Aug. 11 to the end of the year. In addition, it is expected that requirements for proving that one worked as a slave laborer will be relaxed.

“I am convinced that the lawyers have a legal right to their money, but not a moral right,” Spiegel told JTA.

“I am not saying that the lawyers are greedy,” Spiegel said. “It is just immoral when the highest payments to survivors are about $7,000 and the lawyers are getting millions.”

He called on the lawyers to create their own fund for survivors or contribute a sum to the German Foundation for Remembrance, Responsibility and the Future, which earlier this month began releasing funds so that survivors could be paid.

The German government and a group of German businesses agreed in February 1999 to create the $5.2 billion fund to compensate the laborers.

Under the terms of an agreement reached in March 2000, some 240,000 slave laborers — about 140,000 of whom are Jewish — would receive up to $7,500 each. More than 1 million forced laborers — most of whom are not Jewish — would get up to $2,500 each.

Hans Otto Bräutigam, a member of the foundation board, said last Friday that the lawyers should set aside a part of their earnings for survivors.

Konrad Matschke, a spokesman for the German office of the Claims Conference, which was among the groups that negotiated on behalf of the laborers, also urged the lawyers to help the survivors.

“I think it is a nice idea if they could do it,” he told JTA. “It would help their clients, and I think it would also be helpful for their image.”

Michael Witti, the only German attorney among the 51 lawyers sharing the millions in fees, disagreed with this suggestion.

Witti, whose fee will be about $4 million, said he will be receiving about $95 for each of about 30,000 clients.

The fee will enable him to consider doing further humanitarian work, such as helping survivors recover confiscated property in Eastern Europe, he said.

He said he needs the financial security “so I can hire experts, so I can travel and have office staff,” he told JTA. “And this money gives me the support for this.

“If you are not responsible,” he added, “you run away and take commercial cases. But I have an obligation to do human rights cases.”

Meanwhile, many survivors are still waiting to get symbolic compensation for forced work they endured more than 60 years ago.

Gunter Nobel of Berlin has written to the Claims Conference asking if he is eligible for payment for the work he was forced to do in Berlin between 1938 and 1939.

The Claims Conference is processing his application, said Nobel, who was able to flee Nazi Germany to Shanghai in 1939 with his wife, Eugenie, who died in 1990. She, too, was a slave laborer.

“I think the whole thing is a terrible scandal, that one has to wait 50 years to be paid,” said Nobel, who returned to Germany with his wife in 1947. “And naturally there is no relation” between the compensation and “what we had to suffer.”

Nobel said he wrote the Claims Conference saying that, should he receive any funds, he will donate them to less fortunate survivors in Eastern Europe.

Likewise, Suzanne Schlein of the German city of Trier plans to give her funds away – to Israel, she said.

Schlein worked as a forced laborer in 1939. She and her husband managed to escape to bombed-out Berlin in 1943, where they were hidden by a Dutch family named Kaltenberg.

“I really don’t need the money,” she said. “I will give it to Israel, for youth aliyah. I am fortunate, because I never thought I could stand on my feet again.”

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