Survivors fight for role in settling Holocaust claims

NEW YORK — The latest battle for justice for Holocaust survivors is not for compensation, but for dignity. And the targets are not Swiss banks or European insurers, but some of the Jewish advocates who are leading the campaign for restitution.

An increasing number of Holocaust survivors fume that they are being robbed of their dignity by a campaign that presents an image of survivors as hapless and incapacitated, and that excludes them from prominence in resolving Holocaust-era claims.

The latest in a series of offensive portrayals came last week in New York, at a rare public event on restitution, sponsored by an association of American state insurance regulators. They have formed a commission to recover war-era policies issued by European insurers. An American survivor shared the platform with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's diaspora adviser Bobby Brown, the World Jewish Congress, the Claims Conference and a State Department restitution official.

"How can all these people have the right to speak for survivors — and not us?" asked Moshe Sanbar, chairman of the Center of Organizations of Holocaust Survivors in Israel. Israeli survivors have not been offered any significant role or public forum in the United States, which is the center of restitution activity. It was only last week that Sanbar circumvented American Jewish organizations and finally presented Israeli survivors' concerns to the survivors' lawyers handling the $1.2 billion settlement against the Swiss banks.

Survivors often are overlooked by American and European officials, who have become accustomed instead to such advocates for survivors as Brown, Netanyahu's representative, and Israel Singer of the WJC.

"This is an issue of human rights, not an issue of finances," Singer told the insurance regulators last Monday. "For 50 years, those rights have not been restored. For 50 years, those people remained naked, without any rights."

Said Sanbar, "We have an image that we are poor and cannot do anything — and they build on this image."

Brown told the regulators that there is a need for moral and material restitution, and "by pursuing these issues, we can restore dignity to the victims of the Holocaust."

Dignity would be restored, survivors said, when advocates stop overlooking the survivors' accomplishments, talents and contributions in the last half-century.

While an estimated 20 percent of the survivors are financially needy, the "survivor world" also is marked by lives of professional, economic and political achievement, including that of Sanbar, a former Israeli banking executive; Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yisrael Lau and his brother, former Ambassador Naphtali Lavi; Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel; former Knesset Speaker Shevah Weiss; Joe Wilf, the head of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee; and Abraham Foxman, director of the Anti-Defamation League.

But presenting an accurate, and dignified, picture of survivors does not serve the interests of Jewish organizations, Sanbar contended. "They want us to be poor, so they can represent us."