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In Letter, Claims Conference Weighs in on Swiss Bank Payments

June 11, 2004
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A battle is brewing at the main organization managing Holocaust restitution payments over how a massive Swiss bank fund should be distributed among survivors. Two senior members of the Claims Conference, which distributes restitution payments from Germany and other nations to Holocaust survivors, have urged an adviser to the judge overseeing the $1.25 Swiss bank settlement to find a “more equitable” formula for dividing the money among survivors in the former Soviet Union, Israel and the United States.

In April, U.S. District Court Judge Edward Korman heard competing proposals from survivors and dozens of groups seeking a share of some $650 million remaining from the landmark 1998 settlement;$593 million already has been distributed.

Korman and his adviser, Judah Gribetz, repeatedly have signaled that after compensation goes to survivors or their heirs whose Holocaust-era bank accounts were frozen, and to slave laborers and refug! ees, some 75 percent of the money should go to the neediest survivors, who are believed to live in the former Soviet Union.

That plan has been met with protests from groups in Israel and the United States.

In a June 4 letter to the World Jewish Restitution Organization, an umbrella organization of groups seeking Holocaust compensation that includes the Claims Conference, Claims Conference Treasurer Roman Kent and Executive Board Chairman Moshe Sanbar wrote that “senior officers” of the Claims Conference believe more money from the looted Swiss accounts should be used to aid survivors in Israel and the United States.

There should be “a more equitable distribution of funds which reflects the fact that a large percentage of needy survivors now live in Israel and the United States,” the pair wrote to the WJRO’s co-chairmen, Sallai Meridor and Rabbi Israel Singer.

The letter not only adds to a chorus of protest about how the Swiss money is to be distributed, but re! flects a move among top Claims Conference officials to force the group to weigh in publicly on a controversial restitution plan that until now it has avoided.

One U.S. survivor activist who appealed to Korman lauded the attempt by Kent and Sanbar, who also are survivors, to change the payout formula.

“Thank God that Roman Kent has come to the realization that those who are so desperate should get” aid, said David Schaecter, president of the Holocaust Survivors Foundation, a Miami group that represents some 64 survivor groups nationally.

“The judge has to listen. We are not shnorring,” or begging, “for the purpose of being selfish. We’re just asking for an equitable and fair handling” of the funds, Schaecter said.

Like the Israeli officials, U.S. survivors say the court is wrong in its assumption that survivors in the former Soviet Union are needier than those elsewhere.

Some have called for the money to be distributed along demographic lines, though demographers differ on the number and location of survivors globally.

Esti! mates of the number of survivors worldwide range from 687,900 to 1.92 million. Between 39 percent and 47 percent are believed to live in Israel; 13 percent to 23 percent in the former Soviet Union; 15 percent to 17 percent in the United States; 17 percent to 21 percent in Europe; and 2 percent to 5 percent elsewhere.

A Brandeis University report for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which manages social services for many Jews in the former Soviet Union, said the world’s poorest Jews live in Belarus, Moldova, Russia and Ukraine, where social services and medical care are weaker than in Israel or the United States.

Yet U.S. survivor advocates like Schaecter contend that some 20 percent of the 80,000 survivors in the United States lack adequate income, health care or social services.

“A dollar in the FSU still gives you much more in service value than a dollar spent on a survivor in New York City, San Francisco, Cleveland or even in Palm Beach or Boca ! Raton,” he said. But so far “we have not been able to make the judge u nderstand us.”

It was unclear what precisely had sparked the letter, written on Claims Conference letterhead, from Kent and Sanbar, and neither could be reached for comment. But signs of division within the Claims Conference seem to be emerging about the Swiss banks case.

The conference’s chairman, Julius Berman, said the group has “never discussed or taken a formal Claims Conference position as to how other bodies, such as Judge Korman and the Swiss banks settlement, should disburse funds in their control.”

But, he added, in the wake of requests for the group to take a stand, the conference will tackle the issue at its annual board of directors meeting in July.

Elan Steinberg, executive vice president of the World Jewish Congress and a board member of the Claims Conference and WJRO — and someone involved in the original negotiations for the Swiss bank settlement — lauded the letter.

“A survivor, whether in Brooklyn or Odessa or Tel Aviv, should be serviced! equally,” Steinberg said.

“We must never be in a position where we discriminate against Holocaust survivors on the basis of geography.”

According to Steinberg, the letter means that “with the exception of one organization, the principle body” involved in managing and distributing restitution believes the current allocation proposal should be reassessed.

The reference seemed to be to the JDC, a member of the WJRO and one of the groups that appealed to Korman this spring.

Amir Shaviv, the JDC’s assistant executive vice president, said he had not seen the Claims Conference letter but denied that his organization had urged Korman to put more money into the former Soviet Union.

Referring to the report to the court by the JDC’s executive vice president, Steven Schwager, Shaviv said the group “strongly supports the notion that all needy Holocaust victims should be helped, wherever they are.”

At the same time, Shaviv said the Claims Conference letter seemed “unti! mely and unnecessary,” because Korman has yet to issue his final spend ing plan.

“What injustice is this trying to correct?” he said. “There has been no injustice yet.”

Gribetz could not be reached for comment. Korman is expected to rule on the spending plan within the next several months, although exactly when remains uncertain.

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