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Paying survivors: Do reparations work?

By Andrea Waxman
of The Chronicle staff

May 2nd, 2008

When Glendale resident Rose Chrustowski was 19, she was not studying for an undergraduate degree, working as a camp counselor, or exploring foreign cities. A Polish Jew, she was working in a German slave labor camp.

Like Chrustowski, Milwaukeeans Michael Kleiner and the late Walter Peltz, both born in Poland, spent their late teens and early 20s in Nazi concentration camps.

Milwaukeean Sylvia Blasberg, also a native of Poland, survived by escaping to the former Soviet Union and keeping a few steps ahead of the Nazis. Like the others, Blasberg suffered much physical, mental and spiritual pain and lost every member of her family, as well as her youth.

The trauma and loss these and other survivors suffered clearly cannot be undone or reduced after the fact. But a small measure of justice has been pursued in the form of reparations from the German government, Swiss banks and others who perpetrated or benefited from the Holocaust.

Like many issues connected with the Holocaust, opinions about the extent to which European Holocaust reparations efforts have succeeded vary.

First, the array of reparations programs and application processes offered since the early 1950s are extremely complicated. The requirements, documentation, and types of war experiences considered, among other criteria, are rigid and complex.

In addition, many of the issues surrounding reparations are controversial. For example, should victims seek justice when it cannot be attained? Who should pay? Who should benefit? Who should decide?

Many who are familiar with the topic say that reparations have been too little and too late, at best, and at worst, a calculated effort on the part of the perpetrators or beneficiaries of the destruction of Europe’s Jews to buy relief from guilt and the mere appearance of honorable behavior.

On the other hand, a significant number of survivors have received at least some monetary reparations; and though most of the major programs are now closed, according to Paula Simon, executive director of the Milwaukee Jewish Council for Community Relations, there are some country-specific programs that are still open. Furthermore, new programs to address hitherto unmet needs are still opening up, Simon said.

“I just helped someone fill out an application last week for a new German Government Ghetto Labor Compensation Fund” Simon said in an interview at her office at the Helfaer Community Services Building.

This new fund, which opened in September 2007, offers a one-time payment of €2,000 (euros) for Jews who performed unpaid work in ghettos. It was established “to pay symbolic compensation for work without force in Holocaust-era ghettos,” according to the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany Web site. (www.claimscon.org).

The Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, commonly referred to as the Claims Conference, negotiates for compensation and return of and restitution for Jewish-owned properties; obtains funds for the relief, rehabilitation and resettlement of Jewish victims of the Nazis; and administers individual compensation programs.

Occasionally, if conditions caused by wartime persecution start to take a larger toll on a survivor’s life, the survivor can appeal the BEG program for an increase in compensation, said restitution specialist Arie Bucheister of the Claims Conference. But, he added, it can be difficult to make the case.

Two main waves

The important things to know, according to Simon, are that there have been two main reparations efforts.

The first is the West German Federal Indemnification Law, referred to as BEG (an acronym for its German name) or Wiedergutmachung (though the latter name is not accepted by the Claims Conference as it means “making good again”).

The result of a 1952 agreement between the governments of Germany and Israel that was opposed by some survivors who saw any reparations as “blood money,” BEG pensions were paid for persecution suffered and damage to health, Bucheister said.

BEG had stopped accepting applications by the late 1960s, he said. It offered monthly or quarterly stipends, paid out over the lives of some concentration camp survivors who applied for them in time.

The second set of programs opened in the 1980s and 1990s after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Previously unreachable survivors, as well as information about the whereabouts of assets that disappeared during the Nazi era, suddenly became accessible with the opening of the communist bloc.

In an effort to facilitate claims by these survivors and address difficult issues not yet dealt with (such as payment of insurance policies, restitution of stolen property, claims against Swiss banks, and reparations for forced and slave labor), the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims was established in August 1998 under former Secretary of State Lawrence S. Eagleburger, a Milwaukee native.

ICHEIC, as it is called, completed its work in March 2007. According to its Web site, “working together with 75 European insurance companies and partner entities throughout Europe, [it] has resolved more than 90,000 claims.”

ICHEIC says its work resulted in “a total of $306 million being awarded to more than 48,000 Holocaust survivors, their heirs, and the families of those who did not survive.

“More than half of this amount was awarded on policies located as a result of ICHEIC’s archival research (which matched Holocaust survivors and heirs to policy information) or through the Commission's humanitarian claims processes.

“ICHEIC’s settlement agreements with various insurance companies and the German Foundation “Remembrance, Responsibility, and Future” (an effort to address German slave and forced labor) also provided for [more than $169 million in] funds to be made available for humanitarian purposes related to the Holocaust.”

Milwaukee businessman Jerry Benjamin, co-owner of A.B. Data, a company hired to find and contact survivors around the world, is disappointed in ICHEIC.

“ICHEIC failed in its basic mission,” said Benjamin whose company identified “a huge number of people ... who remembered actual experiences of insurance representatives coming to their doors, collecting payments and giving them stamps each week. If you just listen to the details they remember, you know they aren’t lying.”

Benjamin said, “The deal looked good on the surface. It was a plan for payment of good claims, but what was missing was an adequate program for payment of good claims where the paperwork was lost.”

Benjamin said the Germans used the Nuremburg laws to force Jews to give up all of their assets, including their insurance policies. Then, after they killed the Jews, they collected on many of those policies.

“Some [insurance companies] paid the Nazis; some companies were able to hold onto the funds from unclaimed policies. And either way, the insurance companies got away with hell,” Benjamin said.

“Minimally, they should have ponied up substantial funds for improving survivors’ lives,” Benjamin said, rather than “buying huge amounts of public relations for a relatively small amount of money [actually paid out to their Holocaust survivor policy holders].”

Bucheister seems to view ICHEIC more positively. “Was it a complete success? Did it pay every unpaid claim? No, but it filled a void by providing a process where [survivors] could make claims against some companies,” Bucheister said. “Before [ICHEIC was established] you really couldn’t sue insurance companies because there were few survivors or heirs who had documentary proof of their policies.”

Reparations for local survivors

Chrustowski, Kleiner, Peltz and others who were prisoners in camps established by the Nazi government of 1930s and ‘40s Germany, have been paid some monthly reparations from the German government beginning in the late 1950s or the 1960s.

But the amounts have not been large and there is no amount that could begin to compensate what they suffered, said Rose and Betty Chrustowski, Michael Kleiner and Arleen Peltz, Walter Peltz’s widow, in recent telephone interviews with The Chronicle.

Blasberg, now 82, and Simon, who has tried to help her get reparations for years, both said the conditions of Blasberg’s survival have caused her case to “fall through the cracks.”

Although she once received a small one-time payment or two, her survival experience has not made her eligible for any reparations program.

“The programs are rigid. They are typically defined by the German government,” Simon said. There are different, narrowly defined criteria for each program and the guidelines are sometimes based on where you were, what your income is or any number of other things, Simon said.

Kleiner, now 88, explained that the monthly payments were figured according to the time a survivor spent in a camp and the degree of disability that resulted. He remembers that his first payments in 1956 or ‘57 amounted to $23 per month. He now receives between six- and seven-hundred dollars each month, he said. There have been no raises for more than five years.

Peltz, who spent time in five Nazi camps, refused the lump sum settlement offered him, Arleen Peltz said, because there was no replacement possible for his lost youth and for his brother, three sisters and parents, not one of whom survived.

If he had taken that money and invested it, as some survivors did, Peltz said, it would have made a big difference in his financial situation and in his life. “But he could not allow himself to take it,” she said. He died in November 2003 at age 84.

Later, in the 1960s, Peltz started receiving monthly payments generated by some automatic process connected to records held by the German government, Arleen Peltz said.

Chrustowski was imprisoned in a slave labor in Germany from 1942 to 1945, and then sent on a 42-day death march during which 80 percent of the 1,000 female Jewish marchers died or were murdered.

Getting monthly reparations payments “took a long time but I found a company to represent me,” she said.

“They had a lawyer — I gave him 30 percent or something. I really don’t remember. Whatever they gave me, it was nothing compared to what we suffered.”

Though lawyers are often used to file the detailed and complicated reparations application forms, Simon said that it is not always necessary to hire legal counsel. She has worked with legal aid lawyers who specialize in this process, who do not charge for their services, she said.

Current activity

In the 50 years between 1954 and 2004, Israel has spent more than four times the amount transferred from Germany to support survivors, according to articles in Israel’s Ha’aretz newspaper on Sept. 11 and 12, 2007.

The articles noted that in 1952, no one anticipated “the high cost of the last stage of life in the modern era or that people would live at least 10 years longer on average that they did in the 1950s.”

The 1952 agreement also failed to foresee the arrival in Israel of 175,000 additional Holocaust survivors from the former Soviet Union, Ha’aretz said. This huge financial burden has led at least one Israeli cabinet minister, Minister for Pensioner Affairs Rafi Eitan, to suggest soliciting additional assistance from Germany.

In the U.S. Congress, The Holocaust Insurance Equitability Act (H.R. 1746) received committee hearings in October 2007 and February 2008. It was recommended for a hearing in the full House of Representatives, but the date of that hearing is uncertain.

The bill drafted by Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.) and sponsored by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) and others seeks to open insurance company records in Europe and grant American survivors the ability to have their claims heard in U.S. Federal Court.

This bill does not, however, address the important issue of poverty among American Holocaust survivors in large cities.

Critics of the bill say that not enough money is forthcoming from the insurance companies who profited from Jewish Holocaust victims. The bill does not hold the insurance companies to task nor does it address the poverty of the survivors.