Some readers will say “Surely not again.
He is obsessed with this issue.”
Indeed, I am deeply pained and angered that for all these years we have remained
shamefully silent while the Claims Conference failed to adequately prioritize
the desperate needs of ailing Holocaust survivors.
Since my last
column, I was castigated by the chairman, treasurer and other
apologists for the Claims Conference.
But they were unable to refute a
single charge I had raised.
Chairman Julius Berman disingenuously
misrepresented my remarks about the organization’s huge $1 billion in
“investments” (defined as such in the Claims Conference financial statement),
which has increased by $33 million since the last financial report. I never said
all these funds should have been disbursed to survivors. I said more should have
been allocated – a statement I emphatically reiterate.
But my principal
charge – to which Berman failed to respond – was that if only a slightly greater
percentage of the $70 billion allocated by the Claims Conference over the years
had been distributed to survivors instead of other charities – many not even
Holocaust related, including projects of various organizations represented on
the Claims Conference board – we would not today face the tragedy of survivors
unable to pay their basic food, medical and utility bills.
SINCE MY last
column, I have received a flow of additional information concerning aspects of
Claims Conference activities of which I was unaware.
I knew that Berman
had assumed the chairmanship of the crucial advisory committees for disbursement
of funds in the US and even Israel. But I only learned subsequently that he
actually chairs five (!) of the most important committees, including the
powerful allocations committee. He is also a member of three other committees
which do not list a chairman. With such concentration of power in the hands of
one person, checks and balances disappear and governance inevitably becomes
Now, to my astonishment, I learned that Burt Neuborne is one
of three members of the Claims Conference’s “goodwill fund late applicants
committee,” which decides on payments for claimants who file after the German
deadlines for properties for which the Claims Conference had already taken
possession or received compensation.
Since its inception in 1994, the
fund has disbursed close to $1 billion.
That Neuborne – a lawyer who
enriched himself with funds from restitution cases – can be a member of this
important committee is obscene. In an op-ed in the New York Post
Menachem Rosensaft, founding chairman of the International Network of Children
of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, disclosed that in 1997 Neuborne had accepted an
invitation from US District Judge Edward Korman “to serve in a pro bono capacity
as co-counsel for the plaintiffs” in the Swiss bank litigation. Two years later,
he was appointed lead counsel on this basis. In October 2000, he stated that
“every penny in the $1.25 billion Swiss bank case will go to Holocaust victims,”
and ridiculed as “absurd” another lawyer’s $4 million fee. As late as September
2005, he boasted, “I am the lead settlement lawyer in the Swiss case, in which I
served without fee now for almost seven years.”
However, only months
later, in December 2005, he had a change of heart and demanded $4.7 million,
finally extracting $3.1 million (aside from $4.4 million he had already pocketed
from the settlement of Holocaust-related claims against German
This loathsome behavior enraged Holocaust survivor groups
and led to a formal resolution adopted unanimously by the leadership of the
American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and their Descendants
condemning “his greed which eclipses any consideration for overriding moral and
ethical concerns. His actions constitute a moral stain on the legal
The anger flowed over to the media, including an editorial
in The New York Times.
It is inexplicable and unconscionable that a
person who behaves in such a manner is appointed to a leading position in the
Claims Conference and is symptomatic of how the uninformed board simply acts as
a rubber stamp for every decision proposed by its chairman.
is compounded by the extraordinary assertion made in response to my criticisms
by treasurer Roman Kent, who stated that the Claims Conference refused to
provide access to the list of German properties published in 2003 because heirs
would “think that they could file claims but will not be able to do so because
the Claims Conference sold many of these properties since the 1 March 2004
Denying heirs and their children access to such information is
in itself outrageous.
Kent’s statement reflects the arrogance of the
Claims Conference’s refusal to adequately publicize these properties to divert
funds from rightful heirs and compensate for their appalling failure over the
years to prioritize grants to impoverished survivors.
It was only after
pressure from the German and UK governments that the Claims Conference released
the list of properties to the public. It was initially only circulated for six
months. As a consequence, many legitimate heirs only learned of their right to
reclaim their properties after the deadline had expired.
This should also
be viewed in tandem with the huge uproar and litigation which arose over the
manner in which the German properties were managed. There were allegations of
questionable practices related to the sale of properties – amounting to up to $7
billion – which led to two internal audits, the findings of which were withheld
from the public. To date, the Claims Conference has refused to provide an
estimate of the value of the properties it has retained or still claims title
to. Allegations of failures in “transparency and democratic accountability” in
these areas resulted in a major investigation of the Claims Conference by the
Board of Deputies of British Jews, the findings of which will soon be
Then there is the revelation of the fraud perpetrated over the
past 10 years. It is alleged that three Claims Conference officials were sacked
and two returned to Russia.
Nobody has explained why there was no
prosecution and more importantly, no one has revealed how much money was
actually stolen. In February, the Claims Conference told the New York Jewish
Week that the amount was $350,000. In July, after being further confronted by
the Jewish Week, it conceded that the sum had grown to $7 million. However, at
the July board meeting, Kent cautioned that this was “only the tip of the
Since then, there have been requests for clarification of
rumors rampant in Claims Conference circles that more than $40 million may have
been purloined. The Claims Conference has made evasive responses without denying
the veracity of these rumors.
Whatever the situation, instead of hiring
the “biggest and the best” Madison Avenue PR firm, the board should undertake an
independent forensic audit and appoint an ombudsman to protect the interests of
survivors and heirs. An independent authority should also be commissioned to
review the conflicts of interest, governance and transparency of the
organization, and in particular investigate the manner and decision-making
process by which funds are allocated.
Recently, the New York Jewish Week
dropped another bombshell. This month, Stuart Eizenstat, special negotiator of
the Claims Conference, will be hosting a concert commemorating the defiance and
resistance of Jewish prisoners at Terezin. It will be a gala event, with members
of the Obama administration and congressmen expected to attend.
angered the survivor community is that instead of using such a laudable occasion
as a vehicle to raise funds for survivors in desperate need, the Claims
Conference provided a $50,000 subsidy. Admittedly, in the context of billions of
dollars, this is a drop in the ocean. However, it reflects an attitude and as
Leo Rechter, president of the National Association of Jewish Child Holocaust
Survivors, pointed out: “20 survivors could have been taken care of with $50,000
and provided with a shred of dignity in their last days.”
Schachter, head of the Miami Holocaust Survivors Foundation, added that the
Claims Conference had “blown close to $250 million on [educational research and
documentation] projects in recent years, including grants to board members which
had nothing to do with survivor needs.
How in God’s name can the Jewish
world allow this diversion of holy money while survivors are suffering?” How