Acknowledging that the Claims Conference an organization that advocates for Nazi victims and finances social welfare and Holocaust education programs "is shrouded in harmful myths," Marilyn Henry maintains that the good works of the organization far outweigh any legitimate criticisms of it and must not be overlooked.
Henry, who will speak on the issue at the JCC on the Palisades on July 18, is a former staff writer for the Jerusalem Post and the author of "Confronting the Perpetrators: A History of the Claims Conference." She is also an authority on German reparations and the recovery of Jewish artworks and other properties looted in Europe during the Nazi and communist eras.
Henry, a Teaneck resident who has been studying and reporting on Holocaust reparations for a dozen years, says, "It is a complex and emotional topic affecting scores of thousands of survivors and their families."
"I see within my own congregation survivors who are confused about compensation, what their options are, and what help may be available," said Henry, whose husband is Rabbi Shammai Engelmayer of Temple Israel Community Center of Cliffside Park. Given the sensitivity of the topic, she said she is particularly pleased that the JCC event, co-sponsored by The Living Room at Jewish Family Service of Bergen County, will also feature brief presentations by JFS social workers targeted to families directly affected by the issue of reparations.
Describing the "myths" surrounding the Claims Conference, Henry said, "The first myth is that it has a bottomless bank account." She pointed out that the conference’s discretionary funds come from the sale of unclaimed Jewish property in the former East Germany, and that much property has been claimed since the Berlin Wall fell more than 15 years ago. By now, she says, much of those properties have been sold, and their proceeds are being used for programs that help survivors, like Caf? Europa in Fair Lawn.
"Many people say that the Claims Conference hoards funds when it should use them all to help survivors who are needy today," said Henry. But if the conference were to do that, she asks, "who will help survivors who are independent today but may need assistance in two, five, or 10 years?"
Henry noted that, within the Jewish world, there has been a dependence on the Claims Conference to be the primary funder of Holocaust welfare programs. "Institutions and communities must plan for when those funds are exhausted," she said.
She pointed out that there are many survivors who have been getting compensation checks each month from Germany for 50 years. "Those checks did not come because Germany decided to be generous," she said, "but from agreements negotiated in the 1950s and 1960s with the Claims Conference on behalf of individual survivors."
According to Henry, another myth charges that the Claims Conference denies help to survivors who need it. She explained that the Claims Conference administers some compensation programs based on criteria that must be negotiated with Germany, "and it is Germany that bears responsibility for the fact that many needy survivors are rejected."
Still, she told The Jewish Standard, "those who say that the Claims Conference spends too much on Holocaust education will not get much of an argument from me." She noted that this year, for example, the Jewish Agency received some $’.45 million from the conference for educational programs, including "Basic Jewish Literacy for Young Jewish Immigrants from the FSU Living in Germany."
Said Henry, "There is a limited amount of money; anything spent on Holocaust education is money not spent on social welfare programs for survivors, so I think there must be a serious review of Holocaust education programs." Some, she suggested, are of limited value, and others can be financed by sources other than the Claims Conference.
Henry’s work has appeared in newspapers and magazines all over the world, including The Jewish Standard, and she wrote the lead essay in the ’00’ American Jewish Year Book on "Fifty Years of Holocaust Compensation." She is a contributing editor at ARTnews Magazine, and her new book, "Confronting the Perpetrators" (Vallentine Mitchell, ‘007), carries a foreword by British historian Sir Martin Gilbert.
For information on Henry’s talk at the JCC, call (’01) 569-7900, ext. ’04.