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Federations Join Debate over Holocaust Restitution

February 12, 2003
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Miriam survived the Warsaw Ghetto, her husband’s death and a stroke.

Now the 89-year-old North Miami Beach resident subsists on about $1,000 monthly in Social Security payments and German and slave labor reparations, which help buy medication for high blood pressure and depression.

“The medicine is so expensive, my God,” Miriam says. “Right now I have a very good doctor, he gives me samples.”

Miriam, who asked that her real name not be made public, is among 127,000 to 145,000 Holocaust survivors nationwide, an estimated 40 percent of whom lack adequate health insurance and rely on Medicare, Social Security and reparations to cover the rising health care costs associated with aging.

As many of these needy survivors reach their late 70s, their situation is exposing a battle between the main organization handling Holocaust reparations and some survivors and Jewish organizations.

At issue are the central questions of who should be the beneficiaries of unclaimed Holocaust reparations, and who should ultimately be responsible to help survivors.

The debate has engulfed not only survivors, but a growing chorus of Jewish organizations and federation leaders who are criticizing the Claims Conference for its policy of spending 20 percent of the proceeds from the sale of unclaimed German-Jewish property on Holocaust documentation, education and research rather than on caring for needy survivors in North America.

“This is not the moment to be focusing on Holocaust education instead of Holocaust survivors,” said Barry Shrage, president of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston.

“This is the moment to be taking care of Holocaust survivors at a very difficult time in their lives.”

Leaders of the Claims Conference respond that 80 percent of the $430 million from the sale of unclaimed East German Jewish property since 1995 has in fact funded social welfare programs for needy victims of Nazi persecution not only in North America but 30 other countries, including the former Soviet Union, where many survivors are destitute.

And Julius Berman, chairman of the Claims Conference, says the mandate of the East German property settlement includes the mission to “memorialize the people and the way they lived.”

The Nazis would be “more than elated” if the Jews did not remember their crimes, Berman added. “It seems to me we’re spitting in their faces, which we should be doing.”

In part, this struggle reflects an ongoing debate over who should receive the bulk of the $11 billion stemming from the various restitution fronts, including looted Swiss banks accounts, reparations for forced German laborers and slaves, Holocaust-era insurance claims and unclaimed German property.

The controversy flared anew in June 2002, when Israel Singer, president of the Claims Conference, suggested in an essay in the Jewish literary magazine Sh’ma that a new organization be created to spend some future Holocaust restitution “to rebuild the Jewish soul and spirit” through education and other activities.

“Holocaust survivors are not the only persons charged with making decisions for the Jewish people about how to use monies that will not be needed after they die,” wrote Singer, who was instrumental in negotiating restitution agreements around the world.

“The survivors are not the only heirs of Jewish property,” Singer told JTA. “They are the first beneficiaries, but not the only heirs. The Jewish way is to take care of those in need, but also to educate our children.”

While the Claims Conference has not yet moved to broaden its official scope, Singer’s essay sparked a firestorm of criticism.

Among the major critics is the Florida-based Holocaust Survivors Foundation, which represents some 50 grass-roots survivor groups with more than 20,000 members nationally.

Last September, the group submitted a proposal made by the Association of Jewish Family and Children’s Agencies to New York District Court Judge Edward Korman, who is overseeing the Swiss banks case, which said it would cost $30 million annually to boost survivor health care. The proposal suggested that the Swiss banks money be used to fill the gap.

The association is an umbrella group of 130 social service agencies that serve 10,000 survivors across the country, relying largely on Claims Conference grants amounting to $2,500 per survivor yearly.

But since the Claims Conference grants only cover half of the 10 hours of home health care recommended for these survivors, that funding should double, said Bert Goldberg, president and chief executive officer of the association.

The plight of needy survivors only crossed the radar screen of many communal leaders in November, at the annual General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities in Philadelphia. At that gathering of federation leaders, the Holocaust Survivors Foundation handed out flyers blasting as “intolerable” the Claims Conference policy of funding Holocaust education.

Leo Rechter, 75, of New York, secretary of the survivors group, called the fliers a “desperate measure” but said they helped focus attention on the crisis.

By dedicating some money to Holocaust education rather than the survivors themselves, the Claims Conference is “acting like a general philanthropic organization,” Rechter said.

“But we think it’s not their money to dispose of.”

Not all survivors agree.

Eli Zborowski, 77, of New York, a Claims Conference board member, says the argument over the 80-20 split between survivor needs and education misses the point.

Proceeds from the East German property sales belong solely to the heirs of German Jews, not all survivors, he said. “There is no such thing as survivors money.”

Zborowski also believes the Claims Conference should not bear the sole burden for the health care crisis, but that Jewish organizations and federations should share the costs.

“Survivor needs should be addressed by the community at large,” he said.

Most federation leaders who have spoken out on the issue say they have already acted on the local level to aid survivors.

John Fishel, executive vice president of the Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles, said his federation spends about $250,000 annually on aiding thousands of needy survivors via local Jewish Family and Children’s Service agencies, but that money falls short.

“The process though which the Claims Conference is distributing money should take into account that there are survivors now, and in the future, whose needs should be met,” he said.

But Singer believes the federations “have an obligation” to raise funds, too. “We should do this together. Responsible federations understand that.”

One such mega-philanthropist and federation donor who believes that federations should be helping survivors more is Michael Steinhardt.

Steinhardt, a new member of the Claims Conference investment committee who has also spearheaded groups to boost Jewish education, said the “Solomonic” dilemma reminded him of the tale about the rabbi inundated by congregants seeking assistance for their various causes.

” ‘You’re right and you’re right and you’re right,’ ” he recalled the rabbi saying. “There’s no question that some survivors’ needs are unmet — but at the same time, how do you measure how these funds belong only to the survivors?”

“They belong in some real sense to the dead — and in that sense, should be a function of the total needs of the Jewish people and the Jewish future in general,” he said, adding that so little has been spent on Jewish education.

Already the allocations debate has come to a head in cities such as Boston, where representatives of an estimated 400 local survivors clashed over the issue with Claims Conference officials at a meeting in January.

In addition, a handful of federation executives from around the country met in December with Claims Conference officials to air their concerns about the 80-20 split.

Gideon Taylor, the executive vice president of the Claims Conference, who attended that meeting as part of a national campaign to meet survivors and federation officials over the funding issue, points to the fact that 75 percent of the group’s allocations from all the claims settlements — $750 million in 2001 and 2002 alone — goes directly to survivors.

Claims Conference officials say while 20 percent of East German property sales pay for Holocaust documentation, education and research, that spending amounts to less than 1 percent of all its allocations.

During the past eight years, the Claims Conference has spent $85.7 million on Holocaust education, officials say. Funding has gone to such efforts as a research database at Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial; the training of Catholic high school educators about the Holocaust and anti-Semitism by the Anti-Defamation League; and trips to sites of Nazi atrocities.

Singer downplays criticism of such spending as people creating a “faux issue,” and points to the support for such activities by such mega-philanthropists as Edgar Bronfman.

“There is no future if one doesn’t examine the past, particularly when it comes to Holocaust education,” he said.

But perhaps in response to the criticism, Taylor signaled for the first time the possibility that the Claims Conference would devote extra money to health care — from the Swiss banks and insurance settlements, when its board meets in July to hammer out its coming fiscal year budget.

“I believe there will some additional resources from the other restitution settlements to meet these pressing needs,” Taylor said.

Meanwhile, pressure over the 80-20 formula continues to build on the Claims Conference.

The Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston last month unanimously backed a resolution that it will bring to the annual Plenum of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs in March, asking the Claims Conference to “revisit” its education spending.

“You cannot justify Holocaust money being used for anything other than basic needs,” said Nancy Kaufman, the executive director of Boston JCRC.

“It is unconscionable that” the conference “is sitting on the money.”

UJC has also named Lorraine Blass, a senior planner at the federation umbrella group, who was project director of the National Jewish Population Survey, as its lead official on a task force to study the issue.

Robert Goldberg, the chairman of the UJC’s executive committee who attended the December meeting with federation executives, said he intends to continue to lobby the Claims Conference on the issue.

“I couldn’t care less where they money comes from,” he said, as long as survivors’ “needs are taken care of.”

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