By Uriel Heilman
Jewish Telegraphic Agency
WASHINGTON (JTA) — When representatives of Israel, Germany and the newly created Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany met 60 years ago in Europe to hammer out a reparations agreement for the crimes of Nazi Germany, some Holocaust survivors were still living in Displaced Persons camps on the continent.
The mood at the negotiating table was solemn, recalled Saul Kagan, 89, who participated in the negotiations and went on to lead the Claims Conference for more than four decades.
“There were no handshakes, there was no banter or anything else,” Kagan said in a video message Tuesday evening at an event at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum here marking the 60th anniversary of the first reparations agreement.
“We somehow had the feeling that we were not alone in this room,” he said. “Somehow we felt that the spirits of those who couldn’t be there were there with us.”
Six decades on, much has followed from that first document signed in 1952, known as the Luxembourg Agreement.
Germany has paid the equivalent of more than $70 billion to survivors and programs that aid survivors. Israel and Germany have become close allies. Germany has made Holocaust education a centerpiece of its identity, creating school curricula, building Holocaust museums and funding anti-Semitism eradication programs.
This week, Germany took the additional step of changing its funding criteria to add an estimated 80,000 more Nazi victims to those it provides with one-time payments of about $3,150 from the Hardship Fund, which is designated for Jews who fled the Nazis as they swept eastward through Europe.The change, which is expected to affect mostly survivors in Russia and Ukraine, opens the door to funding for the last major group of Nazi victims who have never received money from Germany.
Claims Conference representatives hailed the move as a historic breakthrough.
“This agreement ensures that virtually every Holocaust survivor will be covered,” Stuart Eizenstat, a former U.S. undersecretary of state who represents the Claims Conference in negotiations with the Germans over Holocaust restitution, told JTA. “It’s really a major upgrading of the whole relationship. It’s the first time since 1952 that Germany has negotiated a new agreement.”
In his speech at the anniversary event, Eizenstat said that “It is a testimony to Germany that we are now negotiating with a third generation of German leaders after World War II, supported by the German people, that have acknowledged their historical responsibility to the Jewish people.”
In addition to agreeing to expand the Hardship Fund to ex-Soviet countries that are not in the European Union, Germany agreed to equalize the monthly pensions it sends to some 60,000 survivors around the world, correcting what until now had been a disparity that saw survivors living in western countries receiving more than those in eastern countries. All survivors will now receive the equivalent of approximately $370 per month.
Germany also agreed to relax the eligibility rules for those who receive restitution payments for being forced into hiding during the Nazi era. Until now, only those who went into hiding for at least 12 months were eligible; now the eligibility threshold will be six months.
Together, the changes are expected to cost Germany an additional $300 million.
“The German government is assuming even greater responsibility than before,” said Werner Gatzer, who as state secretary of the German Finance Ministry represents Germany in negotiations with the Claims Conference. Gatzer made his remarks in a speech Tuesday night at the 60th anniversary event. “This process is about much more than just financial compensation. It’s about the recognition of all these individual, personal destinies that need to be heard and preserved.”
Gatzer said a “spirit of cooperation and trust” guides the negotiations process.
“It’s amazing that we’ve been able to get payment for tens of thousands of the poorest Jews on the planet,” Greg Schneider, the executive vice president of the Claims Conference, told JTA. “It’s an acknowledgement of their suffering at the hands of the Nazis decades ago.”
While the Claims Conference administers Germany’s restitution programs, it also makes allocations of its own from the so-called Successor Organization, which is the legal beneficiary of money from the sale of Jewish-owned properties in the former East Germany for which no heirs have come forward.
On Wednesday, the Claims Conference board approved $136 million in allocations from the Successor Organization for each of the next two fiscal years. The bulk of the money will go to programs that aid survivors, including home care, soup kitchens, meals on wheels and medical assistance programs. Slightly less than $18 million per year will go toward Holocaust education.
The board also voted to create a Goodwill Fund of approximately $61 million for heirs of former East German properties who missed previous deadlines for making claims on those properties.
This year’s Claims Conference board meeting represented something of a high point for the organization. For the first time in three years, the meeting was not overshadowed by talk of the massive fraud that was discovered at the conference in late 2009. The $57 million fraud figure has not grown in recent months, and 12 of 31 people arrested in connection with the case have pleaded guilty.
Because it was the 60th anniversary of the first restitution agreement, the board meeting was moved to Washington from its usual location in New York, and the event at the Holocaust museum amounted to something of a somber celebration.