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In 2005, after a four-year investigation, the Claims Conference concluded that Sara Liberman was entitled to compensation for her time as a slave laborer in Auschwitz and sent her two checks worth $11,000.
The only problem was that Liberman had already passed away; she had filed her claim two months before her death. Her children found the checks some months later and assumed that, as her heirs, they were entitled to the money. But they were unable to cash the checks, since, as the Claims Conference told them, the sixmonth window between a victim's death and the time her heirs can file for a transfer of the payout had passed.
That policy, according to the heirs' lawyer, is deeply flawed. He is claiming that the sixmonth time limit - of which the heirs were unaware - violates estate laws by which children inherit their parents assets and represents a selfinterested effort by the conference to hold onto money that isn't theirs.
"This is against Israeli law and law around the world," charged Tel Aviv-based lawyer Nathan Scheftelowitz.
Liberman was born in Romania and died in Haifa. Her three children are spread out around Israel.
"According to the law everywhere in the world, if a person gets a check and then dies, the heirs get the money," Scheftelowitz said.
Scheftelowitz will face off against the Claims Conference in court next month, after the latter rejected a claim for payment he filed with a collection's officer over the summer.
The New York-based Claims Conference declined to discuss the specifics of the case. But Hillary Kessler-Godin, the organization's director of communications, pointed out that the conference operates its Program for Former Slave and Forced Laborers under a law passed by the German legislature creating the German Foundation - a governmentprivate group whose funding the Claims Conference disburses - and is bound by their rules.
According to that law, "If within six months after the death of the eligible person none of the persons eligible as legal successors ... have notified the partner organization [Claims Conference] of their legal succession, the eligibility for an award shall expire."
Scheftelowitz countered that that provision would nullify collection by Liberman's heirs only in the case that a check hadn't been issued by the time of their mother's death.
"They sent a check. A check is as cash," he said. "You cannot say, I will not pay a check."
Scheftelowitz argued that under Israeli law, an individual has at least seven years to collect on a check. He added that six months was an unreasonably short period: "No one after the shiva [first week of mourning] goes straight to the court."
To Scheftelowitz, the issue is bigger than this individual case.
"Our purpose is that the people will receive the money [and] not the Claims Conference," he said.
Other critics have also maintained the Claims Conference has held onto too much of its hundreds of millions of dollars for too long.
But the Claims Conference stressed its record of helping as many survivors as possible.
Kessler-Godin noted that the conference has paid, out of the German Foundation money, approximately 150,000 survivors of slave labor camps and more than 15,000 heirs a total of approximately $1.4 billion. In addition, some 158,000 survivors and more than 7,800 heirs have been approved to receive about $237 million from the Claims Conference with funds from the Swiss Banks Settlement.
"To help survivors who lacked the documentation required by the German Foundation, the Claims Conference undertook proactive research in 150 Holocaust-related archives scattered in 29 countries around the world," she said. "Claims Conference researchers scoured paper and microfilmed lists - often handwritten and not alphabetized - in order to match the names of claimants to any documentation that would meet the requirements established by the German Foundation. This process produced documentation for more than 17,000 survivors."
Still, Scheftelowitz said, "It's the principle. It's not only for [the Libermans'] checks. It's for all the people who received checks from the claims conference that they didn't pay."