Internal struggle brews over WJC shakeup, restitution

NEW YORK — Many say they saw it coming.

As the crusade for Holocaust restitution shifts from politics to the logistics of doling out payments, jockeying has begun over how to spend what may be hundreds of millions of dollars in as-yet unallocated funds.

Indeed, some observers suggest the question may be connected with the current power struggle atop the World Jewish Congress, a key player in the whole restitution odyssey.

With the WJC shakeup and disagreements over which issues the organization should now champion, it has raised the question of how to financially support whatever the new focus becomes.

Thus, attention has turned to the portion of the roughly $11 billion in restitution funds from Europe that is not specifically earmarked for survivors.

The WJC will not have sole — or even primary — control over the allocation of those funds, but key players at the WJC are involved with the Claims Conference, where much of the debate will play itself out.

"The irony is that when all these Jewish groups got together to fight for restitution, they were united against a common enemy and things were going beautifully," said an American Jewish leader close to the proceedings. "But as soon as they saw money on the tip of the horizon, and coming in, they started fighting for control of who'll give it out."

Elan Steinberg, the group's outgoing executive director, rejected any linkage.

The fate of unallocated restitution assets "is an important one to be addressed, but it certainly has no relationship with the restructuring at the World Jewish Congress," said Steinberg, who will be leaving the group March 1 and assume the lay post of executive vice president.

"Let's understand it: nearly all the funds are earmarked in one way or another. So only a very small fraction of the total recovery will be available."

Still, Steinberg noted, that may total hundreds of millions.

And the dispute may boil down to a question that's been brewing for years: What is the best way to spend the "residual" funds in the interests of the Jewish people?

Is it to underwrite pro-Israel activities, or Jewish education and identity-building in the Diaspora, or a combination of both?

From survivors, the response is unequivocal: neither.

"As a group, Holocaust survivors are the strongest supporters of Israel," said Roman Kent, the longtime chairman of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors.

"But I don't want to be involved in any philosophical discussion about for what purpose this money should be used. This money does not belong to Israel. It doesn't belong to the Jewish community," Kent said. "It belongs to the tens of thousands of needy survivors around the world who are not being helped enough, by the Jewish community or anyone else."

Others, however, strongly believe that any leftover funds should be used to strengthen the Jewish people as a whole as a response to the Nazis' attempt to destroy the Jewish people.

Within the past half-century, there has been a dizzying array of reparations, particularly from the Germans and Austrians.

Since 1952, the German government has disbursed some $47 billion in pensions to hundreds of thousands of survivors world-wide; the Israeli government is responsible for delivering these checks to survivors living in the Jewish state.

But restitution kicked into high gear in the 1990s.

Led by groups like the WJC, the Claims Conference and their allies, the Jewish world has won a number of important victories to gain "a measure of justice" for Holocaust victims and survivors:

According to Steinberg, they include billions of dollars of settlements and claims from banks, insurers and funds.

Heirs had until late 1992 to claim the erstwhile, Jewish-owned property; the Claims Conference was then named "successor organization" and entrusted to sell the property.

The conference has so far sold off some 50 to 60 percent of the assets, starting with the most valuable.

The conference allotted 80 percent of the revenues to institutions and agencies that care for needy Holocaust survivors, conference spokeswoman Hillary Kessler-Godin said.

The remaining 20 percent went toward Holocaust research, education and documentation. The conference was, for example, a main funder of an expansion and the new archives and library buildings at Yad Vashem.

To date, the Claims Conference has disbursed about $500 million in grants, Kessler-Godin said.

The balance is held in a "Goodwill Fund," which pays out to owners or heirs who did not file claims by the German-mandated deadline of Dec. 31, 1992, and is set aside for future needs for survivors, she said.

"The funds that we have are not nearly enough to provide for the needs of every organization that applies," she said.

All the talk of "billions" causes heartache for survivors, say advocates, partly because they feel they are not receiving a satisfactory portion of it, partly because the public thinks they are.

"The glitter of gold being depicted by the media is so obscene, it makes the average person on the street believe that every survivor is now a millionaire," Kent said.