Search JTA's historical archive dating back to 1923

For 50 Years, Claims Conference Has Sought ‘small Measure of Justice’

December 13, 2001
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Scattered across the world, speaking a myriad of languages, hundreds of thousands of people share two attributes: They are Holocaust survivors and they have been helped by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany.

This year, the founders and directors of the Claims Conference — created after World War II to oversee restitution and reparations to survivors — marked the organization’s 50th anniversary by reflecting on its task, its accomplishments and its future challenges.

It has not been an easy 50 years. In addition to carrying on complex

international negotiations, the Claims Conference recently has had to contend with accusations from survivors.

Holocaust survivors and their advocates say property and assets looted by the Nazis did not in fact belong to “the Jewish people as a whole,” but to European Jewish communities and individuals. Furthermore, they say, only the survivors are entitled to determine spending priorities, not the groups that negotiated on their behalf.

Some are particularly incensed that monies from the Claims Conference are going to help needy Jews in the former Soviet Union who are not Holocaust survivors. According to a recent article in Ha’aretz, as much as 25 percent, or $25 million, of the Claims Conference’s distributions last year went for this purpose.

Despite the turbulence, Karl Brozik, who represents the Claims Conference in Germany, said the emotional rewards of the conference’s work have been great.

Brozik, 75, recently visited a Jewish senior home in Prague that the Claims Conference supports. There he met a handicapped woman who had been homebound but, since moving to the senior center, is now able to “take part in life.”

“She said she is so happy that she can sit in the garden of the home in her wheelchair,” said Brozik, himself a survivor of the Lodz Ghetto and the Auschwitz and Mauthausen concentration camps. “When you see something like that, you feel you have not been working in vain.”

Other Claims Conference officials also are keenly aware of the significance of the organization’s mission.

“This is not a job. It never was,” said Saul Kagan, 79, who served for 47 years as the Claims Conference’s top professional.

“The broad lesson of the Holocaust, which must outlive the survivors,” is that “responsibility does not die with the generation of the perpetrators,” said Kagan, who now serves as a special consultant to the organization.

“Would that there was never a need for the Claims Conference,” said Gideon Taylor, executive vice president of the New York-based organization. “But what the organization has done in the past 50 years will be looked upon as a remarkable achievement for the Jewish people.”

The Claims Conference was founded in New York in 1951 by 23 Jewish organizations and representatives of the State of Israel.

Convened by Nahum Goldmann, then co-chair of the Jewish Agency for Israel and president of the World Jewish Congress, the conference had the mandate to negotiate with Germany for reparations for the material losses suffered by Holocaust victims.

Goldmann became the first president of the Claims Conference — a position now held by Rabbi Israel Miller. Kagan became executive director, a title later changed to executive vice president during his tenure.

The time was ripe: German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer had declared to the Parliament on Yom Kippur 1951 that Germany had committed “unspeakable crimes” against the Jewish people and must make material compensation and restitution to survivors of Nazism.

Largely as a result of efforts by the Claims Conference, more than 500,000 Holocaust survivors in 67 countries have received compensation payments valued in current terms at about $50 billion.

Along with monetary payments to individuals and organizations, much stolen property — including land and art — has been returned to the rightful owners.

Survivor payments administrated in part by the Claims Conference include:

German government pensions, which have paid more than $50 billion to 277,804 Nazi victims, not all of them Jewish;

Claims Conference programs, which have paid some $250 per month to 53,252 survivors;

the Hardship Fund, which has made one-time payments of about $2,500 to 238,620 survivors; and

the Central and Eastern European Fund, which makes monthly payments of about $125 to 15,650 survivors.

In 2001 alone, the Claims Conference was involved in making distributions from:

a $5 billion foundation created by the German government and industry for Holocaust-era slave and forced laborers;

a $1.25 billion settlement involving Swiss banks; and

a $500 million Austrian settlement for property and asset restitution and for social welfare benefits to Jews from Austria.

In all, the Claims Conference has distributed some $500 million to organizations that help needy survivors, document the Holocaust and help rebuild Jewish institutions destroyed by the Nazis.

In 2002, the Claims Conference “will distribute more than $1 billion for Holocaust survivors,” Taylor said. “It is momentous.”

The effect of such distributions has been felt across the world.

In Israel, for example, the Claims Conference has added more than 3,000 hospital beds, helped fund nearly 100 senior day centers and supported home care services that help Holocaust survivors.

Since the fall of the former Soviet Union, the Claims Conference has been able to reach needy survivors who had not received compensation under previous programs.

With the help of local Jewish welfare centers and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, tens of thousands of survivors in the former Soviet Union and Central and Eastern Europe have received food, blankets and coal for the winter, medical supplies and doctor visits. In addition, old-age homes have been established or refurbished.

Survivors in North and South America, Australia and Europe also benefit from Claims Conference services.

Needy “Righteous Gentiles” who saved Jews during the Holocaust also receive assistance through the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, Kagan said.

“To me, these are very special people,” said Kagan, who immigrated to America before World War II. “If I was in Warsaw in 1943 and someone came to me at midnight and knocked on my door” asking to be hidden, “I am not sure how I would react.”

Looking toward the future, Taylor said the group still has much “work to do, as long as there are survivors alive.”

Among the challenges ahead, Claims Conference officials plan to seek the recovery of Jewish property confiscated by the Nazis in what later became East Germany.

“It was very important for the Claims Conference to get back Jewish property” in East Germany, Brozik said. “We have to fight hard to go forward, but speed is important. Because the people are at an age where they cannot wait.”

In cases where no heirs are found, funds “will go to the essential social service programs we have built up across the world,” Taylor said.

Yet he bristles at suggestions by controversial academic Norman Finkelstein that reparations funds should not go to support Jewish organizations, because this allows these groups to “benefit” from the Holocaust.

“There will always be those who tear down and those who build

up,” Taylor said. “They may get a lot of press in the short run, but what gets built up will remain standing.”

Public opinion in Germany is mixed on the topic of reparations.

On the one hand, Brozik knows some people “who believe that there has been far too little compensation for the suffering of people during the Holocaust.

“But we don’t only have friends. There are some who say, ‘The Jews have got enough.’ They are not too friendly,” Brozik said.

Whatever financial victories the Claims Conference achieves, it is impossible to seek anything more than “a small measure of justice for Jewish victims of Nazi persecution,” as it says in the organization’s mission statement.

“Our struggle is for symbolic compensation payments for those who went through the Holocaust,” Taylor said. “What the Claims Conference has done in the last 50 years will more than make its place in history.”

Recommended from JTA