Germany to compensate Eastern European survivors

FRANKFURT — Holocaust survivors living in Eastern Europe will finally receive direct financial compensation from Germany.

Under a recent agreement reached between Germany and the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, the Bonn government will pay about $27 million a year for the next four years into a fund administered by the Claims Conference.

The Claims Conference executive committee and the German Parliament must approve the agreement, but negotiators on both sides do not expect any obstacles.

Although Germany will not begin paying into the fund until 1999, some of the survivors could begin receiving pension payments later this year. Claims Conference officials in Frankfurt expect the payments to begin operating in July, using funds already at the group's disposal.

Claims Conference officials estimated that there are 16,000 to 18,000 eligible survivors.

However, Claims Conference representatives warned that the process of verifying the eligibility requirements of thousands of applicants could delay the beginning of payments.

In Prague, a Czech Jewish leader welcomed the agreement but also expressed regret that direct compensation had not come earlier after Germany reunified in 1990.

Tomas Kraus, executive director of the Federation of Jewish Communities in the Czech Republic, also said that the move comes too late for survivors who have died, and for those who will die before any compensation is paid out.

While the new German fund is unrelated to the Swiss fund established last year for needy survivors, some of the survivors in Eastern Europe who are slated to receive $1,000 from the Swiss fund this year will also get compensation from Germany, said Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress in New York.

German and Jewish negotiators agreed that pensions would only be paid to survivors who have received no other direct German financial compensation for their sufferings during the Nazi era.

Members of the German opposition Green Party criticized this stipulation, pointing out that it will exclude some survivors in Poland and the former Soviet Union who received one-time payments of less than $1000 since 1991.

Germany has paid more than $54 billion in compensation to Holocaust survivors since World War II, but no payments were made to those living in the Soviet-bloc countries during the Cold War.

After the collapse of the Soviet bloc, Germany maintained that it could not afford to pay individual pensions to survivors in Eastern Europe. Instead, the German government set up general funds in those countries to be used mainly for social services that would benefit the survivors.

Despite persistent reports that most of those funds never reached the survivors for whom they were intended, Bonn continues to hold to this model of compensation. A German-Czech fund inaugurated this month largely financed by the German government will be used to fund social service programs — not individual compensation — for survivors in the Czech Republic.

In recent years, Jewish organizations have repeatedly demanded that all survivors, including those living in Eastern Europe, receive German government pensions. Germany had refused to negotiate until last year, when it was embarrassed by press reports that former SS officers, including alleged war criminals, were receiving monthly pensions.

Further pressure came last August, when 82 U.S. senators signed a letter to German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, demanding pensions for survivors in Eastern Europe and expressing outrage that Nazi veterans were getting pensions. In November, the German Parliament ended special disability pensions to known war criminals.

The German-Jewish negotiations, which began in earnest last August, were on the verge of collapse several times. There were reports of misunderstandings between the two sides and disagreements among some of the 23 organizational members of the Claims Conference, which was founded in 1951 to help Holocaust survivors obtain compensation from Germany.

The new agreement means that the mainly impoverished survivors living in Eastern Europe will finally receive at least token compensation for their persecution by the Nazis.

The largest number of applicants are expected from those countries that currently have the largest Jewish communities in Eastern Europe, including Russia, Ukraine and Hungary.

The eligibility requirements for the new fund will be the same as those for survivors living in the West and in Israel. Criteria include proof of confinement in a concentration camp for at least six months — or in a ghetto or in hiding for at least 18 months. Those who were under 18 who lived in hiding or under a false identity for at least 18 months can also apply for pensions.

While the form of payment has not yet been determined, Claims Conference representatives in Frankfurt said the fund could provide monthly pensions of about $136, depending on the number of survivors who apply for assistance.