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Ujc Seeks to Mediate Between Claims Conference and Survivors

July 2, 2003
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The Jewish federation system will try to broker a deal between Holocaust survivors and the main survivors restitution organization, which are warring over how to spend hundreds of millions of dollars in restitution.

The United Jewish Communities is scheduled to host a summit July 7 at its Manhattan headquarters between the Claims Conference and the Holocaust Survivors Foundation, which represents some 500 grass-roots survivors groups nationwide.

At stake is a 1995 decision by the Claims Conference to spend 20 percent of the proceeds from sales of unclaimed Jewish property in the former East Germany on Holocaust education, continuing a longtime policy of apportioning some restitution money for education.

So far the Claims Conference has allocated $450 million from the sale of abandoned or looted East German property, which is ultimately expected to be worth more than $1 billion when sold.

Of sale proceeds so far, $170 million has been paid to survivors and their heirs, and $175 million in claims are still pending, Claims Conference officials say.

The survivors group insists all of the money should go to aid ailing, needy victims.

Survivors contend that some 40 percent of the 127,000 to 145,000 survivors nationwide subsist on meager earnings and lack adequate medical coverage. The restitution money earmarked for education could help pay the $30 million needed to care for aging survivors in their final years, they say.

The Claims Conference maintains that of the proceeds from the sale of recovered properties in the former East Germany the 80 percent it allocates to survivors has funded social welfare programs both in the United States and in places such as Israel and the former Soviet Union, where many elderly survivors are destitute.

In addition to reparations for looted Jewish art, homes, businesses and communal properties in the former East Germany, the Claims Conference allocates money recovered from looted Swiss bank accounts, reparations for forced German Jewish labor and unpaid wartime insurance policies.

Of the organization’s overall $769 million budget for 2001, education and research only amounted to 1 percent, the Claims Conference insists.

Survivors are not buying that argument, and hope the UJC meeting will change the Claim Conference’s spending habits.

“We believe very much in Holocaust education, but there are plenty of museums, thousands of books, hundreds of documentaries. There is no shortage of Holocaust education and awareness,” said Leo Rechter, 75, of New York, a survivor and secretary of the survivors foundation.

“You have to set your priorities straight. If you have a parent sick and dying and you need to spend money on medication, you don’t go buy a luxury car,” he said.

The executive vice president of the Claims Conference, Gideon Taylor, said only that his group would “give a briefing on issues related to the allocation of restitution” at the UJC session.

A spokeswoman for the Claims Conference, Hillary Kessler-Godin defended the group’s goal of “preserving the memory” of survivors in addition to directly aiding them.

The Claims Conference “believes it has an obligation to educate future generations about the Holocaust and about the lives of those who perished,” she said.

This debate began raging anew when the Claims Conference’s president, Rabbi Israel Singer, floated a proposal a year ago to funnel some money from the various restitution fronts — which together total about $11 billion — into a new fund for Holocaust documentation, education and research.

Singer’s proposal ignited long-standing tensions between the Claims Conference and some survivors.

The debate also will surface at the Claims Conference board of directors’ annual meeting July 22-23, when the board is scheduled to take up the allocations issue, Kessler-Godin said.

Some senior Holocaust Foundation officials said they already have held a conference call to discuss the formula with Claims Conference officials in advance of the UJC meeting, and hope to arrange a subsequent meeting before the Claims Conference board meets.

One survivor said a proposal has been bandied about to change the 80-20 split to 95-5 — though the Holocaust Foundation’s attorney, Samuel Dubbin, declined to discuss details.

“If we cut it down to 5 percent, we wouldn’t argue,” the survivor said.

A Claims Conference source said only that several alternatives have been discussed.

“There have been many viewpoints expressed, including views by survivors and others that the policy should be maintained, or even some arguing for a greater priority” for education, the Claims Conference source said.

Taylor of the Claims Conference also pointed out that many survivor activists, like Roman Kent, belong to the group and back the education spending. He added that some other restitution groups, such as the Foundation for the Memory of the Shoah in France, spend all of their funding on education.

In order for the Claims Conference to change its policy, the board would have to take a formal vote, and a majority would have to support it.

The UJC is not officially connected with the Claims Conference and holds no organizational sway over its policies on restitution spending.

But an intense lobbying campaign by Holocaust survivors over the past few years moved several major federation leaders to publicly call to change the 80-20 formula.

Federation officials joined the debate in part because they aid some of the same social causes. Federations often help fund Jewish family and childrens service agencies, which also receive money from the Claims Conference to spend on survivor assistance.

Those federation calls sparked a March referendum by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the umbrella body for local Jewish community relations councils, urging the Claims Conference to reconsider the 80-20 split.

Among the most vocal critics of the Claims Conference plan in the federation system was Barry Shrage, president of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston, who praised the UJC for stepping in.

“All of us who are on the advocacy side of this are advocating for all the available resources to be used for relief efforts for survivors here and overseas,” Shrage said. “The Holocaust education agenda can wait a little bit.”

Shrage added that the UJC’s president and chief executive officer, Stephen Hoffman, “has the capacity” to work out some kind of settlement between the Claims Conference and survivors.

But the meeting is being kept quiet. One supporter of survivors who said he will attend is Jacob Solomon, executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Miami, who is due to join 15-20 federation executives at the session.

Solomon refused to discuss the UJC’s attempt to bring the two sides together.

Dubbin, the attorney for the Holocaust Foundation, said only that the UJC launched the peacemaking effort “on their initiative,” and that he plans to participate.

One figure who supports spending more on direct survivor needs is Elan Steinberg, a member of the executive of the World Jewish Congress, which is a Claims Conference member group.

“The interests of survivors should not merely have priority; they should have absolute priority,” Steinberg said.

UJC officials, meanwhile, remained mum on the matter. Lorraine Blass, a senior planner at UJC who is heading up a committee to study the issue, declined to discuss the meeting and said it would remain private.

But she did predict that subsequent meetings on the matter would take place.

Meanwhile, the Claims Conference last week allocated $3.6 million in emergency assistance for need survivors worldwide from the Swiss Banks settlement.

The money, part of a $33 million Swiss banks payout over the next decade for survivors outside the former Soviet Union, will go to survivors in 23 countries for such needs as medicines, rent and home repairs.

In 2002 the Claims Conference allocated $77 million to social welfare needs of survivors worldwide, including $2.5 million in emergency aid.

There is no connection between the aid from the Swiss banks front and the standoff over the 80-20 split, Kessler- Godin said.

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