Oct 2003 Journal

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Claims Conference - benefactor or villain?

As a representative of the AJR (under the aegis of World Jewish Relief) on the Board of the Claims Conference for some years, I have become only too aware of the misconceptions and misunderstandings of its activities.

Traditionally, where someone dies without heirs the State inherits their property. Immediately after the fall of the Nazi regime, it became evident to the occupying powers (initially the Americans, later joined by the British and French but not the Russians) that it would be unconscionable for this to apply in post war conditions to Germany. Out of this situation the Conference on Jewish Material Claims against Germany Inc. (the Claims Conference) was born. Formally, it is a not-for- profit organisation incorporated in the US, and is recognised under German law as the legal heir of heirless Jewish individual and communal property in Germany. The proceeds of such heirless property were to be dedicated to the Jewish people and to recording the facts and history of the Shoah and to education. Subsequently, the Claims Conference was given similar status in Austria.

The Claims Conference was originally led by Nahum Goldmann who, though born in Russia, was educated at the Musterschule in Frankfurt. Over the years it has acted not only as the heir of heirless property, but also as the champion of the dispossessed, leading the drive for compensation from the German government to hundreds of thousands of refugees and survivors in the form of pensions and cash payments to the most impoverished.

Board membership

When the Claims Conference was originally established, there were 23 founding bodies. Since then there have been many attempts to change or add to these representative bodies to reflect changes in the world Jewish community. Israeli and East European bodies felt they were underrepresented, while many felt the US (and to a lesser extent the UK) was disproportionately represented. Over the last few years there has been some movement to increasing Board numbers to redress this perceived unfairness. The AJR's own position is that we are a founding member of one of the original 23 bodies, the Council of Jews from Germany. Recently we have sat on the Board, together with a representative of Jewish Care, as representing World Jewish Relief (itself, as the CBF, another of the original 23 bodies).

The Claims Conference has attracted bad publicity, much of it unfair, in connection with its actions as the agent of the German Government. In winning unprecedented sums for survivors, the Claims Conference had to accept that it would be responsible for the distribution of the very money it had secured for those survivors while being bound by the formal and bureaucratic rules laid down by the German Government. The Government thus obtained the credit for paying, leaving the opprobrium for bureaucratic rejection of individual claims to the Claims Conference.

Similarly, the Claims Conference is the paying agent on behalf of the German Foundation 'Remembrance, Responsibility and Future' for Jewish slave labourers other than those living in the former USSR or Poland. Again, it carries the blame for rejecting claimants and for delays in payment caused frequently by the strict rules of the Foundation.

Support for survivors/education and grant making

Another subject which gives rise to deeply felt and vigorously argued debate is to what extent moneys paid out should be used for assistance to elderly, needy Jewish victims of Nazism and to what extent it should be applied for research, education and documentation of the Shoah. The Board agreed a few years ago that 80 per cent of grants should be for assistance and 20 per cent for the education aspects of its remit. This proportion was reaffirmed this year, but not before emotional pleas to apply more to 'survivors' now.

All grants are recommended by an Allocations Committee, which has very thorough review procedures, and are then approved by the entire Board. There has been a move to create a separate allocations committee for grants to Israel, but this has not been agreed; payments for institutions such as old-age homes in Israel are, however, discussed in advance with the appropriate ministries in Israel.

All this pales into insignificance compared to the fraught question of property recovered in former East Germany by the Claims Conference as successor to heirless property.

Under the German laws enacted in 1990 in connection with the unification of Germany, any claims (not merely Jewish) for restitution of property in former East Germany and East Berlin had to be filed by 31 December 1991, although this date was later extended to 31 December 1992. The Claims Conference was again recognised as legal heir of heirless Jewish property, and effectively bound by the same time limits. In view of the very tight time limits, it sought recovery of property wherever it appeared from the records that it might have been Jewish-owned, and so swept up, for example, property registered originally in the name of Alfred Rosenberg! A number of high-profile cases of disputes arose between heirs and the Claims Conference, where both had apparently filed timely claims.

The only money the Claims Conference has had at its disposal was what it raised from this heirless property save some modest payments from, for example, Daimler Benz, which themselves gave rise to fierce arguments, and recent moneys from the Swiss banks and the German Foundation (already disbursed). It has been paying out this money to survivors and refugees as well as for its education objects almost as fast as it raised it. Disbursing over $80,000,000 a year to institutions around the world, it is, for example, the largest supporter of Yad Vashem, as well as supporting social welfare institutions, old-age homes and day centres, not only in Israel but throughout the world, including the US and Eastern Europe. We in the UK have been the recipients of support for our Homecare scheme and the extension of our work throughout the UK (as part of the Umbrella Group).

The Goodwill Fund

In a number of cases, the heirs of Jewish owners found that by the time they learned of what their families had owned, even though they had missed the deadline of 31 December 1992, the Claims Conference had lodged a timely claim for what had been their family property. Even if the Claims Conference had law on their side, the heirs felt they had been robbed. From the perspective of the Claims Conference, they felt that not only did they have law on their side, but, if they faced the prospect of having to hand over to heirs what they had recovered on the basis that no heir had filed a timely claim, then they could not use the funds for the benefit of survivors and other vital work within the world Jewish community. After a stumbling first attempt in 1994 to solve this moral and legal dilemma via what they called the Goodwill Fund, they decided to take action in 1997, and stated that they would consider claims filed to them not later than 31 December 1998 by those who felt they had lost despite being heirs.

In July 2000 the Board agreed after impassioned debate the way in which they would operate the Goodwill Fund. Anyone who had lodged a claim before 31 December 1998 and could show they were a legal heir would receive 80 per cent of what the property had fetched, with 20 per cent being retained to cover costs. Furthermore, any heir who lodged a claim subsequently, and who was a 'family' heir, might still be paid out by the Goodwill Fund on the same formula if he or she could persuade an independent panel of assessors of prior ignorance of the possibility of making a claim. Details of the arrangements are set out on the web at http://www.claimscon.org/index.asp?url=successor_org .

In July this year the Board, after another vigorous debate, decided finally to close the Goodwill Fund to future claims made after a six-month period following the publication for the first time of a list of the names of all families in whose name properties claimed by the Claims Conference had been registered. There is a real concern that the final cost of all claims against the Goodwill Fund could exhaust the resources of the Claims Conference, making it impossible for them to continue with their activities.

The first part of this article appeared in the September issue, the concluding part in the October issue. The article represents the personal views of the writer, and represents neither the views of the Claims Conference nor those of the AJR itself.
David Rothenberg

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