Claims Conference at Crossroads as Fiery Meeting Looms for Holocaust Group

Critics Want Answers on Botched $57M Fraud Probe

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By Paul Berger

Published July 07, 2013, issue of July 12, 2013.
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A Jew who was a fetus at the time his or her mother fled is also eligible, as are the legal heirs of a survivor, if the survivor applied to the fund before they died.

“Even now I am reading some of the websites in Russian, and there is a lot of miscommunication and misunderstanding,” Rubinstein said. “Some people believe that because their parents fled, children are eligible to apply.”

The Claims Conference has implemented many new safeguards since it discovered the fraud. Claims Conference spokeswoman Kessler-Godin said that each Hardship Fund application was being scrutinized rigorously.

Since the program was launched in November 2012, the Claims Conference has received 58,000 applications, Kessler-Godin said. “Each of these applications is being translated, data entered, matched to pre-existing compensation applications, checked for identity, verified that the person was persecuted as a [Jew] and researched at historical archives such as Yad Vashem to document persecution,” Kessler-Godin said.

The Claims Conference estimates that about 20,000 victims of the Nazis will receive payments in 2013, totaling about $67 million.

But some question the group’s expertise in identifying survivors. When the Claims Conference announced last year that it was expanding the Hardship Fund into the Former Soviet Union, the group estimated that about 80,000 survivors might be eligible for the new payment.

Sergio Della Pergola, an Israeli expert on Holocaust survivor demographics, said he doubted that there were 80,000 Holocaust survivors who met the Hardship Fund criteria in the Former Soviet Union. “The only way to make those data credible is that anyone who lived in the Soviet Union [during the war] is eligible, which is a very, very broad criterion,” Della Pergola said.

Kessler-Godin said the Claims Conference based its estimate on the “80,372 Nazi victims who receive Claims Conference-funded services through a network of Hesed, [social service] agencies throughout the FSU.”

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee runs the Hesed agencies. But a spokesman for the JDC said that it served just 71,124 Holocaust victims in 2012.

Asked to explain the disparity, Kessler-Godin said the Claims Conference had sent outreach letters about the fund to “any [FSU] Jewish Nazi victim who has received any service over the past several years and is not already receiving a pension.” Some, she suggested, later moved into situations in which they no longer required the social service. Nevertheless, Kessler-Godin said, such people are “still potentially eligible for the Hardship Fund,”.

These and other questions may be raised during the showdown ahead. But if they are, they will be discussed out of earshot of members of the press and public. Berman has denied requests from the Forward and The New York Jewish Week to attend and report on the meeting.

Berman said in a statement: “It is the long-standing policy of the Claims Conference that its meetings of the Board of Directors are not open to the public. As in the past, meetings of the Claims Conference Board of Directors are closed to the public in order that members of the board may feel free to speak openly.”

Nathan Guttman contributed reporting.

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


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