(photo credit: AP)
The recent international Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets in Prague highlighted the plight of needy Holocaust survivors throughout the world. For the first time, 46 states endorsed the conclusion that "it is unacceptable that those who suffered so greatly during the earlier part of their lives should live under impoverished circumstances at the end," and that a high priority must be to address "the social welfare needs of the most vulnerable elderly victims of Nazi persecution - such as hunger relief, medicine and home care as required, as well as measures that will... allow them to overcome their social isolation. These steps will enable them to live in dignity."
The conference at the end of June also dealt with other pressing issues, including the restitution of communal and private Jewish real estate and Jewish cultural property, the preservation of Jewish burial sites, and a categorical repudiation of Holocaust denial.
Reuven Merhav, chairman of the executive committee of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims against Germany, popularly known as the Claims Conference, was able to persuade participants to acknowledge that heirless real estate in Eastern and Central Europe "could serve as a basis for addressing the material necessities of needy Holocaust survivors and to ensure ongoing education about the Holocaust."
The declaration issued at the end of the Prague Conference constitutes a road map for the final phase of the complex Holocaust reparations and restitution process. Its adoption was due primarily to the tireless efforts of Ambassador Stuart Eizenstat, who headed the US delegation; Ambassador J. Christian Kennedy, the State Department's special envoy for Holocaust issues; and a group of dedicated professionals who ensured that experts and stakeholders alike had genuine input. Among the critical catalysts in the latter category are the members of the Claims Conference senior staff - who frequently come under attack by individuals and groups that take issue with its process of allocating funds.
NO ORGANIZATION should be immune from criticism. Among the most commonly heard charges are that the organization's leadership is somehow hostile to Holocaust survivors. This canard must finally be laid to rest.
First, prominent Holocaust survivors are integral members of the Claims Conference. Roman Kent, chairman of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants, serves as the Claims Conference treasurer and has been a key figure in its negotiations with Germany, together with Holocaust survivors Noach Flug from Israel and Ben Helfgott from England.
Sam Bloch, president of the American Gathering, is a member of the Claims Conference executive committee, and American Gathering senior vice president Max Liebmann has been appointed as one of a number of ad personam members of the Claims Conference board. Other survivors on the conference board include Eli Zborowski, who heads the American and International Societies for Yad Vashem, and Stefanie Seltzer, president of the World Federation of Jewish Child Survivors of the Holocaust.
Saul Kagan, the Claims Conference's founding executive vice president and today its corporate secretary and special consultant, managed to escape Lithuania for the United States in 1940, enlisted in the US Army Air Corps, fought in Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge, began working with the US military government in Germany in 1945 as chief of the financial investigations department and, beginning in 1948, has been instrumental in obtaining reparations for Holocaust survivors.
Three survivor organizations are full members of the Claims Conference, and survivors are prominently represented on all the organization's committees.
More importantly, while one may disagree with individual allocations and actions of the conference, the integrity of its leaders is beyond question.
Rabbi Julius Berman, chairman of the Claims Conference, is a highly respected New York attorney, a former chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and past president of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations in America. In the interest of full disclosure, I once worked closely with Julius for several years in his law firm and found him to be a man who devotes himself wholeheartedly to Jewish causes.
Merhav, chairman of the Claims Conference executive committee, was born in Haifa shortly after his parents immigrated to Palestine from Nazi Germany. He is a former director-general of the Foreign Ministry and played a key role in the rescue of Ethiopian Jews.
In the late 1930s Merhav's father, Walter Markowicz, lacked the Â£500 to purchase a certificate to enable his own father, Reuven's grandfather, to escape Germany .
"I am with the Claims Conference because I have been scalded personally," Merhav has explained. "My father never talked about it at home, but we knew he had not succeeded in getting grandpa out. In April 1942, grandpa was transported from Breslau to Theresienstadt and perished there half a year later."
Eizenstat, responsible for the German negotiations since earlier this year, served as US ambassador to the European Union, undersecretary of commerce for international trade, undersecretary of state for economic, business and agricultural affairs and deputy secretary of the treasury in the Clinton administration.
Throughout that period, he also obtained more than $8 billion in compensation for Holocaust survivors, including payments to slave and forced laborers, the return of thousands of Jewish communal and private properties, the payments of tens of thousands of previously undisclosed bank accounts, the recovery of hundreds of pieces of looted art and the payments on thousands of insurance policies.
Indeed, it is thanks to his selfless dedication and tireless efforts that the issue of justice for Holocaust survivors has been placed at the forefront of the international community's agenda.
This year alone, negotiations spearheaded by Eizenstat and Kent resulted in 13,000 survivors becoming eligible for reparations, and in the improvement in existing pension payments totaling more than $50 million.
I am not suggesting that legitimate criticism of the Claims Conference should not be aired, but it would behoove all involved to focus on constructive solutions.
The writer, the son of two survivors of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, is general counsel of the World Jewish Congress and vice president of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants. He was a member of the US delegation to the Prague Conference on Holocaust Era Assets in June.