Survivors’ Groups Decry Plan for Fund Disbursement

By Nacha Cattan

Published June 06, 2003, issue of June 06, 2003.
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Plans for the disbursement of a Holocaust-related humanitarian fund established by German insurance companies are drawing fire from American groups of Holocaust survivors, as well as Israeli officials.

At issue is a proposal, endorsed by the fund’s administrator, to use as much as one-fifth of the $165 million fund for Holocaust education and other purposes that survivor advocates say are unrelated to the fund’s mission, which they insist is solely to help needy survivors.

Plans have not been finalized, but reports that part of the fund may go to nonwelfare purposes have prompted outrage among some advocates.

“This is intolerable,” said one survivor, Leo Rechter, rising to his feet during a press conference in New York on Monday, where initial plans to disburse the fund were announced.

“How can you justify spending 20% of humanitarian funds for future ‘education projects’ when there’s so much need?” said Rechter, secretary of the Holocaust Survivors’ Foundation-USA, a network claiming to represent more than 25 survivor groups fighting for home care.

The press conference had been convened by the organization that oversees disbursement of Holocaust reparations and restitution funds worldwide, the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany.

The humanitarian fund is part of a $4.8 billion global settlement struck in 2000 between Germany, Israel, the United States, survivors and Jewish groups, to end claims by survivors against German companies and other bodies accused of withholding victims’ property. In addition to the humanitarian fund, the settlement set aside some $100 million for individual policy claims against insurance companies.

The bulk of the humanitarian fund, $132 million, has been earmarked to assist needy Holocaust survivors around the world, mainly by paying for home care assistance.

The executive vice president of the Claims Conference, Gideon Taylor, answered Rechter’s protest by insisting that there has been “no decision to allocate funds for any other purpose” other than aiding poor survivors.

In Washington, however, the chief of staff of an international commission in charge of the Holocaust insurance funds told the Forward that a portion of the humanitarian fund would go toward educational and other projects.

“The question is: Should not some of it be used to maintain Jewish culture and education because the Nazis tried to stamp out Jewish culture as well?” said the Washington official, Dale Franklin, chief of staff of the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims. The commission, formed at the initiative of the Clinton administration, brought together European insurance companies, American insurance regulators, Holocaust survivors and Jewish organizations to negotiate the Holocaust-era insurance dispute.

Chaired by former secretary of state Lawrence Eagleburger, the commission has led the charge against European insurance companies that refused to pay out Holocaust-era policies.

In a January 23 memorandum to members of the commission, Eagleburger proposed allocating 20% of the fund for projects not directly related to survivors’ welfare.

Franklin said the non-welfare percentage had not been determined yet, but he stated as fact that a proportion would go to such purposes.

The Claims Conference has come under fire in the past for a decision to use money from a survivor compensation fund to promote Holocaust education and other programs. In response to that controversy, a resolution was adopted in February by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, a coalition of Jewish public policy groups, calling for “all funds” collected on behalf of Holocaust survivors to be disbursed for the sole purpose of helping needy survivors.

The Jewish Council for Public Affairs is a representative body of 13 national Jewish organizations and 123 local community relations councils. The Claims Conference has yet to decide whether it will comply with the resolution.

The president of the Claims Conference, Israel Singer, said a formula could be found to assist destitute survivors “and yet also run programs with regard to education. It is critical because if we don’t do it now, we will never do it.” Singer raised hackles in the survivor community last year after publicly proposing that restitution funds not needed — in his view — by survivors be used in the future to bolster Jewish education programs.

The allocation of the fund is drawing heat for other reasons, as well. The State of Israel has weighed in against the original plan to distribute some 40% of the fund to survivors in Israel. Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other government officials claim the proportion of survivors living in Israel is greater than 40%. They sent a series of letters to Eagleburger in February calling on the commission to reassess the amount earmarked for survivors in Israel. They say that due to mass immigration from the former Soviet Union, the survivor population in Israel has grown to more than 50% of all known survivors.

Franklin said the commission is looking into the matter.

The fund will pay out $15 million this year, including $2.4 million in the United States, to help provide aging survivors with housekeeping, nurses, food packages, hot meals, medical equipment and medication.

“Many Holocaust survivors are becoming more vulnerable as they grow older and have social service needs that are increasing,” said Roman Kent, chairman of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, in a press release. “Survivors will now receive more of the care and assistance they deserve.”

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