How $57 Million Holocaust Fraud Unfolded at Claims Conference

Letter From Manhattan Federal Court

Done Deal: German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble, right, and Julius Berman, chairman of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, sign an agreement to expand benefits to Holocaust survivors.
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Done Deal: German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble, right, and Julius Berman, chairman of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, sign an agreement to expand benefits to Holocaust survivors.

By Paul Berger

Published May 09, 2013, issue of May 31, 2013.
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The Deloitte & Touche review looked at the Claims Conference’s application procedures, which have been revised since the fraud was discovered. It did not investigate whether top Claims Conference officials could have prevented the fraud.

Berman said that finding out how the fraud occurred is “just a detail, but much more important is how we are going to make sure it won’t happen again.”

Sam Dubbin, a Florida lawyer and another long-term Claims Conference critic, said that whether the Claims Conference could have known or should have known about the fraud is irrelevant. “It’s damning either way,” Dubbin said.

The fraudsters’ four-week trial, which began on April 8, featured many disputes of its own. About the only thing not in dispute was that the fraud was massive and long-running.

During two days of summation, over May 6 and 7, the jury was reintroduced to war-torn Eastern European towns and villages, to ghettoes and concentration camps, to forged documents from the Moscow Red Cross and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society and to Russian surnames that tied knots in attorneys’ tongues.

Jurors also had to understand the various criteria set by the German government to decide which survivors qualified for compensation from two funds, The Hardship Fund and The Article II Fund.

The Hardship Fund makes a one-time payment of about $3,500 to Jews who were forced to flee their homes during World War II. The Article II Fund pays a monthly lifetime pension of about $350 to Jews who lived in hiding or under a false identity for at least 18 months during the war and whose present income falls below a certain threshold.

According to the FBI and government prosecutors, the $57 million scheme was facilitated by Russian-speaking Claims Conference employees and aided by a network of runners and recruiters who submitted thousands of claims on behalf of people across North America who were ineligible for the funds.

Prosecutor Rebecca Rohr told the court that recruiters sent blank application forms, signed by Russian-speaking immigrants and their children, to the Claims Conference, where employees then forged documents and made up false survival stories. After applications were approved, the recruiters demanded thousands of dollars, often paid in cash or money orders, which was then shared with Claims Conference employees.

Rohr produced records showing money orders from Colorado, Massachusetts, California, New Jersey, Illinois and New York.

The jury was unaware that before the trial began, 28 people, including nine former Claims Conference employees, had already pleaded guilty to fraud and, in some cases, witness tampering. The three on trial in Manhattan were convicted of mail fraud and conspiracy to commit mail fraud. Of the three, only one, Semen Domnitser, was a recent Claims Conference employee.


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