Survivors group calls for independent fraud probe

In letter to Julius Berman, Holocaust survivors organization backs Sharansky call for probe of Claims Conference.

June 3, 2013 18:35
2 minute read.
Holocaust survivors in Israel [illustrative]

Holocaust survivors in Israel_311. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

An organization representing American Holocaust survivors and their descendants has called for an independent probe of the leadership of the Claims Conference in connection with a 2001 internal investigation that failed to uncover millions of dollars in fraud, The Jerusalem Post has learned.

The Holocaust restitution body was established in 1951 “to secure... a small measure of justice for Jewish victims of Nazi persecution” through “a combination of negotiations, disbursing funds to individuals and organizations, and seeking the return of Jewish property lost during the Holocaust,” according to the organization’s mission statement.

A letter from Max Liebman, senior vice president of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants, to conference Chairman Julius Berman, echoed calls for further investigation and clarification by Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky and World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder.

While thanking Berman and his colleagues for their dedication to Holocaust survivors, Liebman, who sits on the board of the conference, noted that “many of our members are deeply concerned by the recent reports that indications of the multi-million dollar fraud that has been perpetrated against the Claims Conference may have come to the attention of senior leaders of the organization in 2001.”

Karl Brozik, who in 2001 was the head of the Claims Conference’s German office, received an anonymous note alleging that New York-based conference employee Semen Domnitser was involved in the approval of several suspicious restitution requests.

An investigation led by Brozik failed to uncover the fraud. It continued until 2009 and netted $57 million.

Following Domnitser’s recent trial and the public revelation of the 2001 letter, conference spokeswoman Hillary Kessler- Godin told The Forward that the termination of the internal investigation was Brozik’s responsibility.

However, the JTA subsequently reported that a paralegal working for Berman’s law firm launched a second investigation, which also terminated without uncovering the fraud.

At the time, Berman was pro bono legal counsel and a member of the board, according to a Claims Conference annual report cited by The Forward.

“We believe,” Liebman wrote Berman, that “the circumstances surrounding both the June 2001 anonymous warning and the inquiries that were subsequently undertaken need to be independently reviewed, as has been recommended by Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky.”

Liebman said that his organization “formally request[s]” an inquiry as to “why no action was ever taken following receipt” of the original whistleblower letter and why “the existence of the 2001 letter and of the internal and external examinations of the charges made in that letter was not disclosed to the Claims Conference board.”

This inquiry, he insisted, must, “at the very least,” be referred to the conference’s ombudsman.

Liebman asserted that he did not question the integrity of Reuven Merhav, who was recently tasked with looking into the matter on behalf of the board, but that “the process of providing answers to the entire board... must be able to withstand any and all scrutiny.”

According to Liebman, since there were only a “limited number of individuals” with knowledge of the 2001 letter, an “independent inquiry” by the ombudsman should “not be time-consuming” and could be completed before the next board meeting next month.

The Claims Conference did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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