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Picture of Beneficiaries Emerges Months After Swiss Fund Created

June 4, 1997
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Five months after Switzerland agreed to establish a memorial fund to benefit needy Holocaust survivors, a picture has begun to emerge of what the actual payments would look like.

The good news: Holocaust survivors may begin receiving checks as early as September.

The bad news: Payments may fall short of expectations.

Meeting in Jerusalem this week, representatives of the World Jewish Restitution Organization established a committee to report within a month on how to distribute the fund set up by Switzerland’s three leading banks in January.

Although the WJRO did not announce any formal decisions about how the fund would be distributed, representatives of the WJRO said privately that eligibility will be determined by objective measures of need, rather than on subjective notions of suffering.

The WJRO is headed by World Jewish Congress President Edgar Bronfman and includes the Jewish Agency for Israel and other international Jewish groups.

Officials stressed that they do not plan to get into the business of quantifying suffering or engaging in a selection process that distinguishes, for example, between survivors of concentration camps, ghettos or those who fled persecution.

One Jewish official close to the decision-making process said the WJRO would likely limit distributions to survivors whose incomes are below the poverty line.

Based on that criteria, payments ranging from $500 to $1,000 may be disbursed to between 300,000 and 400,000 Holocaust survivors as early as September, the official said.

The top priority, officials decided this week, will be securing aid for survivors in former Communist countries in Eastern and Central Europe — the so-called “double victims” who never received reparations from the German government.

The WJRO also agreed that, at least to begin with, the fund should be distributed to individuals, rather than organizations or special projects that deal with survivors.

During the next month, the WJRO committee will dispatch task forces to gather data on the conditions facing Holocaust survivors in Europe, Israel and the West. These task forces will then make recommendations concerning allocations.

“The recommendations are simply going to flow from the facts on the ground,” said the Jewish official, who asked not to be named.

He added: “Essentially we will know about how many survivors there actually are, what their socio-economic profile is and what would be an appropriate kind of allocation that would make a practical difference in their lives.”

Once recommendations are made, they will be passed on to a seven-member executive board and an 18-member council appointed by the Swiss Federal Council to administer the fund.

The process of disbursing the fund to survivors through existing infrastructures in Europe, Israel and the West is then expected to move quickly, the official said.

“Hopefully we’re on schedule and we’ll begin to make actual allocations by the end of the summer,” the official said.

The emerging consensus about the mechanics of distributing the Holocaust fund comes after a series of delays in which both Jewish and Swiss officials accused each other of foot-dragging in appointing members to the Swiss fund council.

With most of the major obstacles standing between the fund and Holocaust survivors now cleared, the truly difficult task ahead has come into focus: deciding how to apportion a relatively small pool of funds in a way that would be meaningful to the largest possible number of recipients.

But some Jewish officials say that the reality is that there simply is not enough money to go around to satisfy the profound need of survivors.

With contributions from Swiss banks, industrial companies and insurance firms, the Holocaust Memorial Fund now stands at about $120 million. An additional $70 million pledge by the Swiss National Bank is awaiting parliamentary approval later this year.

“People talk about hundreds of millions of dollars and don’t stop to think about what that means when you start dividing it between hundreds of thousands of people,” said Sidney Clearfield, executive vice president of B’nai B’rith.

“The expectations of the survivors are enormous because there has been so much publicity about the gold,” said Benjamin Meed, the president of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors.

Both Clearfield and Meed were recently appointed by Switzerland to sit on the fund’s 18-member council. Other Jewish members include:

Israel Singer, secretary general, World Jewish Congress; Avraham Burg, chairman, Jewish Agency for Israel; Charles Goodman, chairman, Jewish Agency’s Board of Governors; Moshe Sanbar, president, Center of Organizations of Holocaust Survivors in Israel; Israel Miller, president, Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany; Rabbi Moshe Sherer, president, Agudath Israel World Organization; and Michael Schneider, executive vice president, American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

The council also includes representatives of organizations serving gays, Gypsies and Catholics. These groups, which were also victimized during the Holocaust, are expected to receive a portion of the fund’s distributions.

Headlines throughout the past year have brought staggering revelations that up to $400 million worth of gold — some of it looted by the Nazis from countries they overran and some confiscated from Holocaust victims — made its way to Switzerland during World War II.

At the same time, Jewish groups have charged that Swiss banks are holding up to $7 billion in assets Jews deposited during the World War II era.

The issue of individual Jewish claims against Swiss banks, however, is a matter that remains separate from the Holocaust memorial fund.

Those multimillion dollar claims dealing with so-called heirless accounts will continue to be addressed separately, and Jewish officials stress that any payment a survivor receives from the memorial fund will not prejudice a survivor’s further claim to money from the banks.

A commission of international experts, headed by former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, has already begun the work of sorting through individual bank claims.

At a special session of the Knesset Committee for the Restitution of Jewish Property this week in Jerusalem, the Volcker commission announced that five Swiss banks would soon be audited as part of the search for unclaimed bank accounts and other assets of victims of the Holocaust.

During the Knesset session, the Volcker commission also announced plans to establish a claims settlement procedure that would seek to match claims by Holocaust survivors or heirs with assets uncovered during the audits.

Elan Steinberg, executive director of the WJC, called this procedure “a conceptual breakthrough” that would allow individual claimants to bypass the Swiss bank ombudsman, who had previously charged a hefty fee to investigate a claim.

To facilitate the new process, the names listed on dormant accounts will be made public through the media and via the Internet.

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