Ausgabe 36/2007

Fury over Token Sum Jewish Groups Call Holocaust Compensation Offer 'Unacceptable'

Germany is trying to resolve one of the last major outstanding World War II compensation issues, involving forced laborers in Jewish ghettos. But Berlin's offers so far have been ridiculously low. "They must have forgotten a zero," commented one Israeli official.

By in Jerusalem

Forced laborers work in Dachau concentration camp in this undated archive photo.

Forced laborers work in Dachau concentration camp in this undated archive photo.

Germany's Deputy Finance Minister Karl Diller isn’t the kind of person who seeks out the limelight. For almost nine years, the 66-year-old Social Democratic parliamentarian from Trier has worked discreetly and efficiently under three finance ministers, including the incumbent, Peer Steinbrück. Diller is usually only in the public eye when the post office, for which his ministry is responsible, is presenting yet another special issue stamp.

But last week, Diller was entrusted with an unusually sensitive mission. German Chancellor Angela Merkel wants him to fly to Israel this week to resolve one of the last major compensation issues from the Nazi era. It involves Jews who had halfway regular work in the ghettos set up by the Nazis. In contrast to those forced laborers who have already received compensation, these ghetto workers were usually paid, but often only with paltry wages or with food.

The German parliament passed legislation in 2002 in order to ensure the survivors got a pension, but most payments have been stymied by the arcane bureaucracy of the pensions administration. Around 64,000 of the total 70,000 applicants have been turned down -- and often for absurd reasons. For example, officials claim survivors had told German authorities in the 1950s they had carried out forced labor, but later changed their stories, allegedly so they could benefit from a ghetto worker's pension. However many Jews did in fact suffer both fates -- working first in the ghetto and later as forced laborers.

But the high rate of rejection has become a political liability for the German government, and so Merkel told Finance Minister Peer Steinbrück to work together with the Jewish Claims Conference in New York to find an unbureaucratic solution. They agreed to set up a fund which would pay out pensions to survivors -- but now the minister is getting stingy.

If just half of the claimants received a pension, it would end up costing around €1 billion ($1.36 billion), or so the government told the opposition Green Party in response to a query. But at the beginning of the year Steinbrück was only prepared to make a mere 1 percent of that sum -- €10 million -- available to the fund. True, the finance minister did increase his offer in the following months to €75 million, or around €1,200 for each survivor -- but that still remains a token sum compared to what the survivors are expecting as a pension.

Merkel’s cabinet was actually supposed to approve the fund this Wednesday, but considerable resistance is already evident. After Merkel told Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of the €75-million offer in a telephone call, he described it internally as insufficient. “They must have forgotten a zero,” one of his advisors said.

Olmert is already under pressure himself over the Israeli state’s poor treatment of many Holocaust survivors and so he can hardly accept a nominal sum. “Olmert absolutely cannot agree to this deal,” warns David Greenstein, the 74-year-old chairman of the Holocaust Survivor Association in Israel.

The Jewish Claims Conference also distanced itself from the offer after talks in the Finance Ministry last Friday. “It is unacceptable for us,” says the group’s representative in Germany, Georg Heuberger.

Symbolic compensation would also not end various legal proceedings working their way through the German courts. Survivors’ lawyers are determined to continue with their cases since several courts recently ruled in favor of claimants. If successful, the cases will force the German pension system to pay out billions in compensation.

And suddenly the pension authorities appear to be a bit more willing to compromise. “We welcome any constructive and legally acceptable approach to resolving the Holocaust survivors’ cases unbureaucratically and quickly,” said the spokesman of the Rhineland pension authority.

Jan-Robert von Renesse, a judge at the regional state court in Essen, even flew to Israel earlier this year to listen to the testimony of survivors whose claims had been rejected. His assessment was clear: “All claimants were credible.”

Together with fellow judges from across Germany, Renesse has put together a proposal as to how the issue can best be resolved in the interests of all parties concerned. The proposal, which has been obtained by DER SPIEGEL, envisages a compromise solution, whereby both the pension authorities and the German government each contribute about €300 million to finance compensation claims.

Meanwhile it is finally dawning on many in the government that the €75-million fund model will not solve the problem. Officials in the Finance Ministry have already advised Steinbrück against it. They have invited Renesse and his colleagues to Berlin this week in order to examine the judges’ proposal.


© DER SPIEGEL 36/2007
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