The main processing agency for Holocaust-era reparations payments voted this week to continue its policy of allocating some restitution money toward Holocaust education, turning down calls to divert all the funds toward needy survivors.
The 57-member board of directors of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany voted unanimously Tuesday to continue spending 20% of the proceeds from one source — the sale of unclaimed East German Jewish properties — to support Holocaust education, documentation and research.
The other 80% of the East German assets fund goes to assisting needy survivors.
Groups of survivor activists, backed by some American Jewish social service agencies, had called for the entire fund to be used for survivors’ healthcare and other needs. The conference rejected the proposal, citing its “obligation” to “preserve the memory of the 6 million killed” as one of its duties.
“We have a legacy, and the legacy is from the dead,” said Ben Helfgott, a Claims Conference board member and chairman of the ‘45 Aid Society, a group of survivors who were brought to England as children in 1945. “The legacy they left us is not to forget. Holocaust education is a very important part of it, and if you don’t support it, it ends.”
The decision was sharply criticized by the Holocaust Survivors Foundation, the Florida-based group that had led the fight to change the spending.
“Isn’t it a shame that it comes at the expense of desperate, needy and dying survivors?” said the foundation’s president, David Schaecter.
The Claims Conference, formed in 1951 to represent the worldwide Jewish community in reparations negotiations with West Germany, is the primary administrator of reparations and restitution payments to Jewish Holocaust survivors and victims’ heirs from various sources, including the German government, Swiss banks and the Nazi-era insurance fund.
Of the conference’s annual $800 million budget, about three-fourths consists of reparations and restitution payments transferred directly to survivors and heirs. The remainder includes humanitarian funds established by the Germans and the Swiss, as well as some $90 million in income from the sale of East German properties.
It is those properties, former Jewish communal institutions as well as private Jewish properties confiscated by the Nazis and unclaimed by heirs, that are at issue.
Under the so-called “80-20 agreement,” adopted in 1995, the conference allocates 80% of the East German proceeds to organizations that assist needy survivors and 20% to programs in Holocaust education and documentation. They include a research database at the Israel national Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem, various teacher-training programs and an archival effort aimed at helping Nazi-era insurance policy holders document their restitution claims.
Such allocations last year totaled $17 million, or about 2% of total Claims Conference funds.
The 80-20 policy has come under increasing fire over the past year. At the urging of the Holocaust Survivors Foundation, some Jewish federation leaders and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, a national council representing Jewish public-policy groups, have spoken out for diverting the funds to meet survivors’ needs.
Critics say the Claims Conference should spend all available funds on survivors. They point to studies indicating that growing numbers of American survivors are frail, elderly, poor and lack adequate care.
The conference’s defenders counter that while its first duty is to survivors, it has an additional duty to preserve the memory of the victims.
Defenders also argue that the German properties confiscated by the Nazis and unclaimed by living survivors or heirs rightfully belong to the Jewish people worldwide, not simply to other survivors.
A year ago, the president of the Claims Conference, Rabbi Israel Singer, caused a sensation with an article in the journal Sh’ma that said that the conference should use some funds to create a new foundation for the “future needs of the Jewish people,” including general Jewish education as well as Holocaust studies.
That proposal has been endorsed by officials of the Jewish Agency for Israel, the Conference of European Rabbis and others.
Since Singer’s call, however, pressure has been building on the Claims Conference to scrap its 80-20 policy and direct all funds toward survivors’ needs.
Estimates of the number of survivors in the United States range from 127,000 to 145,000. It is believed that about 40% of them cannot afford adequate healthcare.
Last year, the Association of Jewish Family and Children’s Agencies delivered a study to the judge overseeing the Holocaust-era insurance settlements case saying it would take $30 million annually to meet the healthcare needs of needy survivors in the United States.
Claims Conference officials say that only about 10% of all survivors live in America. Conference assistance is also directed toward needy and frail Jewish elderly in the former Soviet Union, particularly in Ukraine, where tens of thousands of Jewish seniors are destitute and receive no government assistance. The conference defines such people as survivors because they lived through the Nazi occupation.
American survivor groups counter that as many as half spent the war years away from the occupation zone and thus should not be eligible for such survivor assistance.
In advance of this week’s board vote, the Claims Conference solicited written views from board members and dozens of others, including survivor groups. Most endorsed the 80-20 policy, while a handful, mainly American and Israeli survivor associations, called it “unconscionable.”
Natan Sharansky, Israel’s minister for world Jewish affairs, addressed the conference board this week and endorsed funding for Holocaust education. Interviewed shortly before the vote, he said that in addition to the Claims Conference, other bodies — particularly federated Jewish philanthropies — should also help needy survivors: “If there are increasing needs, it is the role of the Jewish people to meet these needs.”
The United Jewish Communities, representing federated Jewish philanthropies, convened a panel earlier this month that invited both sides to make their cases. In a letter to the conference afterward, UJC officials offered to work together to explore how federations could help in “meeting human service needs.”
UJC officials also said that the organization would “pursue discussion” with the overseer of the Swiss banks settlement “to explore possibilities of funds from that source.”
Nobel Prize-winning author Elie Wiesel, who addressed the conference this week, called the controversy “an honest debate” but said he would “shy away” from taking sides.
“We can afford to do both,” Wiesel told the conference Tuesday, referring to education and aid for the needy.