Was Holocaust Fraud at Claims Conference Even Worse Than Believed?

Prosecutors Work To Keep Lid on $57M Corruption Case

Widespread Misconduct: As the federal trial over fraud at the Claims Conference kicks off, Leo Rechter, president of the National Association of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, is angry that prosecutors are trying to limit disclosure of widespread fraud at the group.
Widespread Misconduct: As the federal trial over fraud at the Claims Conference kicks off, Leo Rechter, president of the National Association of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, is angry that prosecutors are trying to limit disclosure of widespread fraud at the group.

By Paul Berger

Published April 11, 2013, issue of April 19, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Multi Page

Federal prosecutors are trying to prevent a jury from hearing evidence that a multimillion-dollar fraud at a non-profit which processes Holocaust claims is even more widespread than the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s office have so far revealed.

The prosecutors, from the Manhattan U.S. Attorney’s Office, are also trying to prevent defense lawyers from arguing that the German government and the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany were negligent and therefore partially to blame for the alleged $57 million fraud that will be the subject of the trial.

A fraudster’s guilt “simply does not depend on whether a victim was diligent or not,” prosecutors argued in court papers filed in U.S. District Court on March 22.

Judge Thomas P. Griesa, of U.S. District Court, has deferred ruling on both of the prosecutors’ requests unless and until such claims arise during the trial, which began with jury selection on April 8 and is expected to last for four weeks.

The Claims Conference distributes millions of dollars from the German government to Holocaust survivors around the world. The trial will focus on alleged fraud perpetrated against two Claims Conference controlled funds.

But the government’s motions suggest, for the first time, that additional cases of fraud may have taken place.

In their court papers, prosecutors request that defense attorneys be barred from “eliciting testimony or introducing evidence at trial concerning purported improprieties in the Claims Conference’s administration of other compensation programs, including Germany’s Slave Labor Program and the Fund for Victims of Medical Experiments and Other Injuries.”

When asked about these references, a Claims Conference spokesman told the Forward: “The Claims Conference was a victim of an organized, complex crime. We will not comment on the defendants’ legal strategies and possible defense theories.”

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York also declined to comment beyond the statements contained in the prosecutors’ filing.

But some survivors who have long been critical of the Claims Conference are disappointed with the prosecutors’ request.

“It is very unfortunate to see the United States Attorney trying to prevent disclosure of the evidence of misconduct inside the Claims Conference,” said Leo Rechter, president of the National Association of Jewish Holocaust Survivors. “Grassroots survivor leaders have been trying for years to get law enforcement and elected officials to probe the lack of transparency and lack of accountability within the Claims Conference.”

The alleged fraud that the trial will address shocked Holocaust survivors, particularly those in the Russian-speaking Jewish community, when it first came to light, in 2010. The plot is thought to involve thousands of fraudulent claims filed over 16 years with the Claims Conference.

Since the fraud was uncovered, the Claims Conference and FBI investigators have identified about 5,000 fraudulent claims made against two of the conference’s funds. They believe that $12 million was lost to fraudulent claims filed with the Hardship Fund, which makes a one-off payment of about $3,500 to people who were forced to evacuate during World War II. Prosecutors believe that an additional $45 million was claimed fraudulently from the Article 2 Fund, which pays a monthly pension of $400 to needy survivors who lived in hiding or under a false identity for at least 18 months during the war.

The three accused are alleged to have been part of a wide-ranging scheme in which thousands of people from the Former Soviet Union submitted applications and documents that were later altered or supported by forged papers so that they could make fraudulent claims.

Federal prosecutors portray 55-year-old Semen Domnitser, a former director of the Hardship and Article 2 funds, as having been the fraud’s ringleader. “Domnitser’s approval was a prerequisite for sending applications to the German government for payment,” prosecutors say in court papers.

Oksana Romalis, 43, of Brooklyn, and Luba Kramrish, 58, of Toronto, are accused of submitting fraudulent claims on behalf of family members and of recruiting others to submit fraudulent claims.

All three maintain their innocence.

Twenty-eight people, including nine former Claims Conference employees, have already pleaded guilty to fraud and, in some cases, to witness tampering. Nine of those people have been sentenced, some to more than one year in jail, and ordered to pay fines and restitution totaling millions of dollars.

Many of those who pleaded guilty are older than 50, and some are in their 70s and 80s. Polina Berenson, an 83-year-old former Claims Conference employee who pleaded guilty to fraud and witness tampering in March, faces a maximum of 60 years in prison, according to U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara.

Berenson’s lawyer, Alex Grosshtern, said his client is more likely to be jailed for several years when she is sentenced in September.

Contact Paul Berger at berger@forward.com or on Twitter, @pdberger


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Happy birthday William Shakespeare! Turns out, the Bard knew quite a bit about Jews.
  • Would you get to know racists on a first-name basis if you thought it might help you prevent them from going on rampages, like the recent shooting in Kansas City?
  • "You wouldn’t send someone for a math test without teaching them math." Why is sex ed still so taboo among religious Jews?
  • Russia's playing the "Jew card"...again.
  • "Israel should deal with this discrimination against Americans on its own merits... not simply as a bargaining chip for easy entry to the U.S." Do you agree?
  • For Moroccan Jews, the end of Passover means Mimouna. Terbhou ou Tse'dou! (good luck) How do you celebrate?
  • Calling all Marx Brothers fans!
  • What's it like to run the Palestine International Marathon as a Jew?
  • Does Israel have a racism problem?
  • This 007 hates guns, drives a Prius, and oh yeah — goes to shul with Scarlett Johansson's dad.
  • Meet Alvin Wong. He's the happiest man in America — and an observant Jew. The key to happiness? "Humility."
  • "My first bra was a training bra, a sports bra that gave the illusion of a flat chest."
  • "If the people of Rwanda can heal their broken hearts and accept the Other as human, so can we."
  • Aribert Heim, the "Butcher of Mauthausen," died a free man. How did he escape justice?
  • This guy skipped out on seder at his mom's and won a $1 million in a poker tournament. Worth it?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.