Four leaders of a prominent Holocaust survivors’ coalition, including its board chairman, have broken with the group’s approach to the allocation of Holocaust-era restitution payments, saying the group’s campaign for increased aid to American survivors had become overly combative and had “backfired.”
The four dissenters are charging that the coalition, the Holocaust Survivors Foundation-USA, had demanded unrealistic funding for survivors in America. The dissenters argue that while survivors in America are needy, those in the former Soviet Union have greater needs. They say that the foundation’s tactics had hurt survivors by delaying the process of allocating assistance. The dissenters discussed their criticisms of the foundation in meetings with the judge overseeing a $1.25 billion Swiss banking settlement and other key players in the restitution process.
The foundation’s tactics “only create difficulties and unnecessary delays in bringing about a speedy and just resolution to the allocation process so direly needed for the Survivors in our community,” board chairman Israel Sachs wrote to U.S. District Judge Edward Korman in a December 29 letter, a copy of which was obtained by the Forward.
Sachs added that he had resigned from the foundation’s 16-member board. His three allies have not resigned their seats on the board, but they joined him in his meetings with Korman and others.
“We have wasted the years with a destructive campaign that alienated the people who are in charge of the survivors’ fund,” Sachs wrote in a letter to the Forward. In a telephone interview, he said, “The people outside of the U.S. have more profound needs.”
The dispute comes as Korman is preparing to accept proposals from the public on how to distribute a residue of unclaimed funds that could total as much as $500 million from the $1.25 billion Swiss banking settlement. The 1998 settlement ended a class-action lawsuit filed in Brooklyn federal court by Holocaust survivors who charged that Swiss banks had prevented them from reclaiming their families’ World War II-era bank accounts.
In addition to returning bank deposits and other funds looted from individual Holocaust victims, a portion of the original settlement — totaling some $100 million — was set aside by the judge for humanitarian assistance to Holocaust survivors around the world, based on need. Two-thirds of that sum was set aside by the judge for survivors in the former Soviet Union, where need was considered most extreme. Another 14% was set aside for needy survivors in the United States.
The Holocaust Survivors Foundation has contested that allocation in legal filings and various lobbying efforts, arguing that a greater proportion should have been allocated to survivors in America. The critics’ charges of delay and divisiveness are in large part related to the foundation’s efforts to change the judge’s distribution.
Foundation leaders note that they agreed to suspend their legal challenges in May 2001, after receiving what they said were assurances that their proposals would be considered in the future. They say they have done nothing to delay the process since then.
“We don’t want to fight with anyone else; we just want the needs of American Holocaust survivors to be recognized,” said foundation board member Leo Rechter, who heads the New York-based National Association of Jewish Child Holocaust Survivors.
Sachs said he broke away from the foundation in part because he feared the foundation would take delaying actions in the future. “At this point in time we don’t want survivors to wait for legal maneuverings,” said Sachs, who co-chairs Holocaust Survivors of South Florida, a coalition that he says consists of 14 survivor groups.
Rechter countered that the foundation has no current plans to submit any legal challenges.
The foundation was formed in late 2000 as a coalition of local survivor groups in various cities lobbying for increased funding for home health care for aging survivors. In addition to the Swiss settlement, the Miami-based foundation has actively questioned the use of heirless funds held by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany.
Foundation leaders maintain that their group has given an effective, grassroots voice to American survivors, who they claim are not represented by other Jewish organizations. They say it has put survivors’ health care needs on the map and was able to increase the transparency at the Claims Conference.
Reinforcing the foundation’s claims about American survivors’ needs, a newly published report based on data gathered in the National Jewish Population Survey 2000-01 shows that 51% of survivors who immigrated to the United States after 1965 fall below the poverty level. Their median income is just $8,600.
Survivors who arrived here before 1965 fare much better, with fewer than 1% living below the poverty level and a median income of $41,000.
Of the estimated 121,000 survivors living in the United States, the survey says, about 63,000, or 52%, came before 1965, most of them postwar refugees from Germany, Poland and Austria. Those who came after 1965 are nearly all refugees from the former Soviet Union.
The four foundation dissidents have begun meeting with Judge Korman and Claims Conference officials on their own. They said the meetings have already led to an increase in funding for poor survivors in Boston and assurances from Korman that most if not all of the residual funds will go to help survivors.
In addition to Sachs, those who have aired their differences with the foundation are Leon Stabinsky, a founder of the California Association of Holocaust Child Survivors; Yehuda Evron, who heads the Queens-based Holocaust Restitution Committee, an organization fighting for private property restitution in Poland, and Hanka Hirshaut, president of the Queens Chapter of Holocaust Survivors.
“The HSF has to use methods of negotiations instead of confrontation.” Hirshaut said. “Maybe we don’t agree with what’s happening, but the way we were doing it until now didn’t bring the results we all wanted.”