Germany starts payments to Eastern Europe survivors

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FRANKFURT — Fulfilling a landmark agreement reached last year, Germany has begun making monthly pension payments to Holocaust survivors living in Eastern Europe.

About 800 survivors, mainly in the Czech Republic and Baltic countries, have already begun receiving the payments of some $150 per month, according to Karl Brozik, director of the Frankfurt office of the Conference on Material Claims Against Germany.

The Claims Conference, which reached an agreement with the German government about the payments last January after months of negotiations, is administering the pension fund.

With some 6,000 to 7,000 survivors already having made requests for pensions, Brozik said he expects a total of about 30,000 applications.

Due to eligibility restrictions, which already depend largely on the length of persecution a survivor suffered under the Nazis, he estimates that about 18,000 Eastern European survivors will eventually receive the pensions, which will switch to a quarterly payment basis starting in February.

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 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.

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.

In the wake of pressure from the American Jewish Committee and other Jewish organizations, Bonn officials agreed to begin negotiations on pension payments.

While the $150 monthly payments are only half the size survivors living in Western countries receive, Brozik believed the money will nonetheless be helpful for many of the mostly aged and often sick survivors.

"I have been in the compensation business a long time," Brozik said, "and I have never heard so much as a thank-you. This time, I got numerous thank-you letters from pension recipients."

There are still unsolved payment problems, Brozik said, adding that the banking system is not yet developed enough in some parts of Eastern Europe to make it possible to rely solely on bank transfers.

He also noted what he described as a disturbing development: Some governments are trying to tax the pensions.

Meanwhile, private donors in Germany who have been supporting survivors living in the Baltic countries said they will continue their donations despite the new German government pensions.

Wolf Middelmann, a retired teacher living in the central city of Gottingen, has long privately supported Eastern European survivors.

He and his wife, Hanna, publish a newsletter about the situation of individual survivors and the ways in which donations help them.

They are not alone in their efforts: Private donors in other German cities, such as Leipzig, Tubingen, Freiburg and Bremen, also contribute money on a regular basis.

Now that survivors are receiving the pensions, Middelmann said he will start collecting money for more specific purposes, such as costly medical operations.

In addition, the Middelmanns and other donors want to start helping widows and widowers of former survivors, so that they are not left financially destitute after a partner dies.

The donors will also start helping about 200 rescuers who risked their lives to help save their Jewish neighbors during the war.