By 1994, the German government had given €260,000 to The Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, better known as the Claims Conference, for property in Leipzig which used to belong to a local Jewish businessman as part of its compensation for unclaimed Jewish assets in East Germany.
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But complicated moral and legal issues over how to use restitution money to best serve Holocaust survivors may mean the heir of the Leipzig businessman, as well as many other claimants of Jewish property, won’t see any of it.
Zita Ben-Tal – who escaped Germany to the UK as a child just before World War II broke out – is not entitled to the money because she learned of the estate her grandfather left in Leipzig only in 2009, about five years after a deadline that permitted heirs to seek compensation.
The Claims Conference became sole custodian of the revenue raised from the sale of the property when the deadline passed in 2004 and maintains reconsidering compensation for heirs of unclaimed property in East Germany may jeopardize the payments it provides to needy survivors.
But a new report submitted to the British Board of Deputies earlier this month has criticized the Claims Conference’s practice regarding heirs like Ben-Tal, saying they deserve to be reimbursed even if it comes at the expense of other Holocaust survivors.
The paper, which was commissioned by the Board of Deputies and written by barrister Jeffrey Gruder, calls on the Claims Conference to reopen the Goodwill Fund, which has paid hundreds of millions to claimants of Jewish property and is still dealing with others who applied before the 2004 deadline and have yet to have reached settlements.
“I am of the view that the Board should seriously consider requesting the Claims Conference to reopen the Goodwill Fund for a limited period of time after the publication of a comprehensive list of claims made and settled with the names of the relevant owner or the business, the address and the amount claimed or settled,” Gruder wrote. “I think that limited time should be no more than one year.”
The Claims Conference has rejected reopening the Goodwill Fund after it was sealed in 2004 citing several reasons.
First, the organization said it had done everything in its power to notify claimants of the pending deadline, placing ads in newspapers around the world and making a list of unclaimed Jewish property in East Germany available to the public.
Second, money raised from selling property in East Germany is earmarked to provide welfare services to Holocaust survivors. Any curtailment of payments to ailing survivors could have “devastating” effects, it warned.
In addition, the Claims Conference said it managed to extend the deadline on the submittal of claims by Jewish heirs several times in its deliberations with the German government.
According to Gruder, however, the list of Jewish property in East Germany without heirs provided by the Claims Conference was incomplete; it did not include first names of the owners or the street names of the properties’ locations and did not appear consistently on its website.
Furthermore, Gruder said that, despite the potential for a flood of new claims that might tie down funds that could be used to help Holocaust survivors in need, claimants should be given the opportunity to receive reimbursement even though the deadline has passed.
Claims Conference chairman Julius Berman said in response to the report that it did not rule out reopening the fund, but that such a decision would have to be reached at the next meeting of its board, which seats two Board of Deputies members.
“As I have set forth in my written response to Vivian Wineman, the president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, on Friday, December 17, the Claims Conference is a multi-organizational body with a Board of Directors that determines its policies and the British Board is a constituent member with two designees on the Board,” he wrote in an e-mail to The Jerusalem Post
. “Thus, it has the right to raise any policy issue it wishes.
In light of the Gruder Report to the British Board, the latter will determine whether it adopts the position reflected therein and, if so, I would expect that it will request that the matter be placed on the agenda at the forthcoming Annual Meeting of the Claims Conference and it is in that forum that the matter will be fully debated and voted upon.”
He added, “The issue of current Goodwill Fund guidelines was widely debated in 2002. At that time, a committee was appointed to review the issue [publication of the list and re-opening of the Goodwill Fund deadline after what had been a nine-year filing period]. The Goodwill Fund proposed policy was distributed on July 9, 2003, discussed at the Claims Conference Board meeting of July 22-23, 2003, and was adopted. Board of Deputies delegates Paul Edlin and Ben Helfgott were in attendance at that meeting. In the subsequent seven years, neither delegate from the Board of Deputies or any other Claims Conference Board member has requested a review of the policy, which was approved in 2003.”
Part of Ben-Tal’s grievance is the Claims Conference’s alleged disregard of her initial inquiry. Ben-Tal said she was met with silence when she first approached the group in November 2009 about her family’s property in Leipzig and that she only discovered of its existence after an independent investigation.
“I am uncertain as to how representative these instances are of the general attitude of the Claims Conference to inquiries by heirs or relative of property owners,” Gruder wrote reviewing Ben- Tal’s case and several others. “However, ignoring requests for information by heirs or, indeed even worse, the obstruction of their attempts to obtain information is, in my view, regrettable to say the least and has the effect of exacerbating the sense of bitterness felt by heirs who already feel aggrieved by the fact that the Claims Conference has received and is disbursing to other victims of the Holocaust what the heirs regard as their inheritance.”
The Claims Conference said it could not respond to Ben-Tal’s complaints on time for this article because the staff which treated her inquiry was on holiday.
Over the past few years, the Claims Conference has come under attack from critics alleging profligacy and corruption in the organization. For instance, last month, 17 people were arrested in New York for allegedly defrauding $42 million. According to their indictment, the group of Claims Conference employees and their accomplices filed bogus claims for nonexistent survivors and split the money among themselves.
Some have alleged the organization has intentionally refrained from
cleaning house after the fraud was revealed in order to cover up more
malfeasance within its own ranks. However, US envoy on Holocaust issues
Douglas Davidson told The Jerusalem Post
last week he believed the Claims Conference had taken the necessary steps after it discovered the fraud.
The Gruder report, however, limited itself to the handling of Jewish assets in East Germany.
“I see powerful arguments that the disposition of the Claim Conference’s
funds and the choice of projects are management decisions, which is not
in my province to criticize, nor do I have any basis for seeking to
second-guess the decisions of the relative executives of the Claims
Conference,” it stated.