Even as it defended itself from attacks over its handling of a major internal scandal, the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany last week scored another major victory in its efforts to bring a measure of justice to survivors of the Shoah, many of whom have been ineligible for compensation until now.
The victory came last Thursday, May 23, in Jerusalem, in what is being referred to as yet another historic agreement between the Claims Conference and the Federal Republic of Germany. It marked the first time in the 60 years of negotiations between the two that talks were held in Israel.
Among other things, Germany agreed to provide “approximately $1 billion over the four-year-period, 2014- 2017, for homecare for Jewish Nazi victims, with the annual amount increasing every year through 2017,” according to a letter prepared for Claims Conference board members by former United States Ambassador Stuart Eizenstat, the organization’s special negotiator. The letter was made available to the Jewish Standard this week.
Eizenstat is a former U.S. deputy Treasury secretary. During the Clinton administration, he was its point man on Shoah-related issues, serving first as Clinton’s “special representative” and then as undersecretary of state for Holocaust matters. In a 2002 article in the American Jewish Yearbook, Eizenstat was described as the “most visible of the actors” involved in restitution-related issues during the last decade of the 20th century. He spearheaded efforts that led to more than $6 billion in added compensation for survivors, and played a pivotal role in getting additional former German allied countries to agree to their own compensation programs.
In his letter, Eizenstat called the $1 billion an “unprecedented amount of funding” that provides “historic levels of homecare funding for Nazi victims.”
Because of the agreement, he wrote, “we can give Nazi victims around the world the aid that they desperately need as they grow more frail.” He added that the fact that the agreement extends “funding through 2017 underscores the German government’s ongoing commitment to Holocaust survivors,” especially “at a time of budget austerity in Germany.”
Eizenstat also wrote that Germany “agreed to provide this funding after reviewing extensive detailed material on the numbers and distribution of Holocaust victims, poverty and disability rates, governmental supports and costs of service, as well as projections of future needs of Holocaust victims, which was prepared by” Claims Conference staffers.
The homecare fund was only part of the agreement, wrote Eizenstat, who is a partner in the Washington, D.C.-based law firm of Covington and Burling, where he oversees its international practice. Perhaps the most significant development is a redefinition of “ghettoes” that would extend compensation from the so-called Article 2 Fund and the Central and Eastern European Fund to as many as 3,000 Shoah survivors who until now have been considered ineligible. The Article 2 Fund, negotiated in 1990, provides approximately $330 a month to Shoah survivors in the former East Germany who were living under conditions of “hardship,” but who were ineligible before that time because they lived in a communist state (sometimes referred to as “double victims” – first of the Nazis and then of the communists). The Central and Eastern European Fund came into being in 1998, offering a smaller compensation rate to so-called hardship cases among the double victims in those formerly communist areas.
“Under the current regulations governing Claims Conference pension programs,” Eizenstat wrote, “those survivors who were in ‘closed’ ghettos, surrounded by a wall, are entitled to receive payments if incarceration in a ghetto is the basis for applying. There are, however, thousands of survivors who were in ghettoes that were not closed, such as in [the Ukrainian city of] Czernowitz, Romania and many places in Bulgaria, among other Nazi-allied countries. These Jews lived under conditions similar to closed ghettos: under curfew; deprived of their jobs; subject to persecution measures; wore the yellow star; received reduced food rations; and lived in constant fear of deportation.”
Under the new agreement, however, as of January 1, 2014, compensation will be extended to Jews who lived in an agreed-upon list of 300 “open” ghettoes. “Further, the Claims Conference has the right to submit the names of additional ghettoes, together with historical documentation,” to extend the coverage even further. This could mean increased funding by the German government of some $9 million to $14.2 million per year.
In addition, the German government agreed to put the special needs of Shoah survivors who were children at the time on the agenda for a new round of talks in the fall. Until now, it has resisted formal discussions of those issues. That part of the talks was led by former Ambassador Collette Avital, a member of the Claims Conference’s negotiating team and a onetime consul general of Israel to New York.
As a result of Avital’s efforts, Eizenstat wrote, “The Claims Conference and German government will be discussing the unique traumas and late-onset symptoms associated with children who endured the Holocaust. We hope the special conference on child survivors scheduled for Berlin in the end of August will provide special impetus for our efforts to provide assistance to child survivors.”
Eizenstat also informed Claims Conference board members that the income limit for Article 2 pensions was being raised to $25,000 a year from the previous $16,000.
“The main focus of our negotiations for several years now has been on securing home care assistance for needy survivors, and this was a clear success in getting still more funds -essentially an average of $90 million above what the amount will be in 2014 for the three years 2015-2017,” Rabbi Andrew Baker, the American Jewish Committee’s director of international affairs, told the Jewish Standard. Baker, who spoke to this newspaper from Jerusalem, was among the agreement’s negotiators.
“Other achievements – at least in dollar terms – are much more modest,” Baker said. “They have focused on liberalizing, incrementally, the conditions on previously negotiated agreements on Article 2 fund pensions and Eastern and Central European pensions. These pensions were negotiated in the 1990s, as the Germans had refused to reopen the B.E.G. agreements.” B.E.G. is an unfortunate acronym for Bundesentscadigungsgesetze, which means Federal Compensation Laws.
“When they were instituted [in the early 1950s], they came with conditions – e.g., six months in a concentration camp, 18 months in a ghetto, financial means tests, etc. And so with each negotiation, we have been able to lessen these conditions and thus allow more people to be eligible. That is what has happened in the current negotiations by including ‘open ghettos’ and also by raising the income limit.”
Baker noted that time was running out for many Shoah survivors. “With each passing month, people who have been receiving these pensions are dying, so we may find ourselves moving toward an end point where all survivors will be eligible for these pensions, but where no survivors will be with us to claim them.”
Julius Berman, who chairs the Claims Conference, said in a statement that because of the new agreement, “the Claims Conference will be able to both increase the number of beneficiaries, thus eliminating waiting lists of survivors for homecare, as well as increase the number of hours per person to a minimum level of dignity.
“These results speak volumes to the skill and commitment of Ambassador Eizenstat, who has spent much of his lengthy U.S. government, and private career providing justice for Holocaust survivors. His compassion for survivors is boundless; but, what makes him unique is his willingness to use his considerable intellect and extraordinary negotiating abilities for their betterment.”
“The cornerstone of our work is ensuring [that] survivors are able to live out their lives with dignity,” Berman said, and the new agreement is another step in achieving that.
In recent weeks, the Claims Conference and Berman in particular have come under fire for not acting quickly to uncover a multimillion-dollar fraud scheme by several of the organization’s former employees. The conference eventually did uncover the wrongdoing, but this led to considerable criticism because of the 17-year life span of the fraud scheme.
With the board’s approval, Berman appointed former Israel Ambassador Reuven Merhav, the chairman of its executive, to investigate how it reacted and what, if anything, it did wrong.