Posted Monday, September 4, 2000

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In the last year, associations of elderly Holocaust survivors have sprung up everywhere from Vienna to South Florida to Toronto to battle fellow Jews for the rapid disbursement of funds

Toronto, September 15th, 2000


Show survivors the money

Isabel Vincent

On Monday night in New York, Hillary and Bill Clinton were the guests of honour at a gala dinner at the opulent Pierre Hotel, sponsored by the World Jewish Congress, to honour North Americans and Israelis who have played key roles in Holocaust restitution efforts. Guests ranging from former U.S. Senator Alfonse D'Amato to World Jewish Congress president Edgar Bronfman Sr. donned tuxedos and congratulated one another on their good work that has recently culminated in the availability of several billion dollars in compensation to victims of Nazi atrocities from Swiss banks, Swiss businesses, the German government and German industry.

The dinner also marked the official announcement of a foundation to manage the monies. But while World Jewish Congress bureaucrats and politicians fête each other on their successful efforts to raise money for the victims of Nazi aggression, many of those surviving victims feel they are being left out in the cold. In the last year, associations of elderly Holocaust survivors have sprung up everywhere from Vienna to South Florida to Toronto to battle fellow Jews for the rapid disbursement of funds that have resulted from momentous settlements, including the US$1.25-billion negotiated two years ago with Switzerland's largest banks to compensate the heirs of Nazi victims who entrusted their money to these institutions before the Second World War, and the nearly US$5-billion from the German government and industry earmarked for former slave labourers -- Jewish and non-Jewish -- who worked for companies such as Volkswagen and Krups [sic] during the Nazi regime. The protesters say they want the money quickly because while the bureaucrats and politicians attend expensive dinners and wrangle over how to distribute the funds, many of those who should be receiving the money are dying.

"It's a moral outrage how these groups can claim to be the inheritors of the victims, and mire themselves in even more bureaucracy," said one elderly Holocaust survivor based in Toronto.

"We are being treated like ignorant refugees who just came off the boat," said Leo Rechter, who heads up the New York-based National Association of Jewish Child Holocaust Survivors. "The Nazis robbed us of our dignities; now others seem to be doing the same thing."

Those are pretty harsh words for organizations that purport to fight for Holocaust survivors. But if the history of Holocaust restitution is anything to go by, Holocaust survivors seem to have every right to panic when they hear news of the creation of yet another foundation set up in their name.

In 1951, the Claims Conference was set up to handle the hundreds of millions of dollars in reparations paid by the government of West Germany to survivors of the Holocaust. Since its inception, the conference has been mired in nasty criticism and prolonged litigation in American courts. Seven years after it was established, a Holocaust survivor sued the Claims Conference for alleged mismanagement of funds. In 1995, Holocaust survivors brought a class action suit against the Claims Conference also alleging mismanagement and embezzlement. Plaintiffs sought US$40-billion in damages. Although the survivors lost their legal battles against the Claims Conference, the accusations have created a climate of distrust, and made many wary of Jewish organizations set up to oversee monies earmarked for restitution and compensation.

In their complaints against the World Jewish Congress's new foundation, which will be responsible for the disbursement of hundreds of millions of dollars from a total pool of US$9-billion in Holocaust reparations payments, many Holocaust survivors say they are bitter because much of the money has already been earmarked for educational and cultural endeavours. There are plans to distribute money for Holocaust educational programs, and to rebuild Jewish communities in places such as Poland, Russia and Hungary. While these all sound like worthy causes, many Holocaust survivors would prefer that they are accomplished with someone else's money, not their own compensation or restitution funds. Survivors are also upset because the foundation will be administered by the World Jewish Restitution Organization, the same bureaucratic body that oversees the Claims Conference.

Perhaps anticipating the bitter controversy that the establishment of the World Jewish Congress foundation would generate among his fellow Holocaust survivors, author and professor Eli Wiesel recently noted in an interview with the Post, "I don't like being involved with the money."

JTA: WJC defends fund raiser as appropriate 'thank you'

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