The Claims Conference

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk


Believe It or Not ......

There are today about 25,000 living Jewish survivors of the slave labor camps established by the Europeans between 1933 and 1945. These are the remnants of those 200,000 who came out of the camps at the end of World War II. These are the old people who had survived their families and friends and are now living in poverty.

Indeed there are among the survivors some who “have made it”. They are the few who struck it rich in business or who managed to get an education in their adopted homeland, enter the professions and secure a good income for themselves.

The vast majority of the 200,000 worked in factories, department stores and the civil service and earned only small pensions to support themselves in their old age, i.e. now.

As early as 1951 twenty-four American - Jewish organizations established the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany. That Conference succeeded during many years of negotiating with the Germans to bring about at least a minimum of compensation to these survivors. A good share of the money the German government was willing to pay was given to Israel as the inheritor of that share which pertained to those of the 6 million murder victims who had no heirs. The amount paid to Israel was 3 billion German Marks (Deutschmark) or $1.74 billion.

After Israel had received such compensation, some of the survivors were compensated directly by the German government in the form of pensions earned by older survivors who were eligible for German social security payments and in the form of compensatory pensions. These “restitution” pensions were very small but, when added to pensions earned in this country, made it possible for the older survivors to live in relative security. Younger survivors were usually given lump sum payments. These consisted usually of $1,000, a ridiculous sum compared to the years of suffering and the huge material goods stolen from all the Jews during the years 1933-1945.

All of this was limited to German Jews who were citizens of West Germany before 1933. East Germany refused to pay one cent to the survivors, so that the claims of East German Jews could not be made until the wall fell in 1989. Thereafter, some Jews from the eastern part of Germany also received small payments after an immense number of bureaucratic papers had been filed.

Now, there were only 585,000 Jews in all of Germany before the Nazi takeover. Only 15,000 survived, so that the German government had few obligations. The bulk of the survivors were of course from Eastern Europe. They had never been Germans and therefore received nothing from the German government until the “Claims Conference” succeeded in gaining another DM 450 million, or less than $270 million, in 1952.

After many years of haggling over the money, which the Germans labeled “Jewish manipulation” as if the victims were money mad, the Jewish Claims Conference succeeded in gaining a treaty from Germany in October of 1992 which extended the payments to Jews who had formerly not lived in Germany but were brutally victimized. Of course the Germans benefited greatly from the fact that so many years had gone by and a vast number of their erstwhile victims had died.

In January of 1998 the German government allocated another DM200 million or about $125 million to be used to pay about $290 a month as regular payments to holocaust survivors who need this money in their old age.

This money was, however, not paid directly to the survivors but to the Jewish Claims Conference, now entrusted with the task of locating and paying this German money to individual former slave laborers and other victims. All told, the Claims Conference has accumulated in its accounts about $1.5 billion because the conference sold a number of erstwhile Jewish property without heirs to gain so large an amount. It had therefore been thought that the claims conference could support the needy survivors who, in their old age, cannot wait much longer, as death is knocking on their doors.

The Conference of Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, however, has now become an entrenched bureaucracy. After 52 years the conference suffers from huge administrative costs involving executive directors, assistant directors, lawyers, secretaries, travel expenses, offices, cars, conferences etc. etc. etc. Therefore, the conference has set aside about 20% of its holdings for such expenses and other projects to the detriment of the survivors and their heirs. For example, a woman now living in New York sued the Claims Conference on the grounds that the conference took property in Germany belonging to her deceased parents and kept it for itself instead of giving her, the only surviving child of the erstwhile owners, the property or the money. The Conference handed the proceeds from the sale of that erstwhile Jewish property to the rightful heir only after this woman filed a lawsuit against the Conference.

Worse than that is the failure of the Conference to keep 20% of the money paid by German insurance companies who had withheld their obligation to the insured all these years. The conference bosses are evidently not concerned with the fate of the poor Jews who suffered the Holocaust in their youth and suffer poverty in their old age. Instead the Conference bosses, not survivors themselves of course, want to use large segments of the available funds for public speakers, meetings, museums and other visible projects but not needy victims who must have support now.

The Claims Conference now owns a considerable amount of East German property restored to the Jewish people after 1990. So far the Conference has refused to publish a list of all this property which should be restored to the rightful owners, i.e. the survivors themselves or their heirs.

The sum of this story is that once more power, bureaucracy and aggrandizement is more important than aid to those who need it the most.

Because numerous Jewish organizations and media have demanded that the Conference alter its policy and first support the poor survivors before spending large sums on other projects there is a possibility that these policies will now be changed. Still we ask: “why does it take lawsuits and publicity to give help to those who need help instead of spending their money on the antics of bureaucrats?”

Shalom u’vracha.

Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of numerous publications, including Grandparents:  A New Look at the Supporting Generation (with Dr. Ursula A., Falk, 2002), & Man's Ascent to Reason (2003).

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