German fund finishes payments to Nazi victims

Interviews with survivors suggest money met with gratitude, but also with bitterness as being too little, too late. And even with enduring rage.

During Germany's World War II occupation of Poland, Jerzy Kowalewski paid a heavy price for helping the resistance. The Nazis knocked all his teeth out, then packed him in a cattle car to the Auschwitz concentration camp, where they ordered him to clean streets in 15-hour shifts and turned him into a human guinea pig in sadistic medical experiments. Six decades later, Kowalewski, 83, gained a small measure of compensation for that suffering - about €15,000 (US$19,700) - from a German fund set up to help surviving victims of the Nazis forced labor program. Now, after compensating Kowalewski and nearly 1.7 million other Nazi-era forced laborers over the past six years, the fund is sending out its last checks to meet a Sunday deadline to finish its work. "This isn't just about money," said Guenter Saathoff, director of the Remembrance, Responsibility and Future foundation that administers the fund. "It's much more about morality: These payments are one way that Germany recognizes the wrongs inflicted on its victims." But whether the payments brought the victims solace is another question. Interviews with a handful of survivors throughout eastern Europe - much of which was invaded and brutally occupied by Adolf Hitler's forces - suggest the money was met with gratitude, but also with bitterness as being too little, too late. And even with enduring rage. "The Nazis burned my relatives to death before my eyes," said Markiyan Dimidov, a Ukrainian who was only eight in 1943 when Nazis set fire to his 3-year-old sister, Feofania, in a shed in a Belarus forest, along with his grandmother, great-grandmother and 2-year old cousin. "Our tragedy cannot be compensated by any money." Dimidov was sent to a concentration camp and did forced labor in Latvia's Ogrsky region. He received €7,670 (US$10,000) from the German fund. Though the fund compensated victims from Kiev to Tel Aviv and Los Angeles, the largest recipient groups were non-Jews in Poland and Ukraine, people exploited in large numbers in Germany's wartime industries. Unlike Jews, who often were killed immediately in concentration camps, many of these non-Jewish victims survived their ordeals. Kowalewski, a soft-spoken man of aristocratic ancestry, said the money meant a lot to him - it just wasn't enough. He spent it on physical therapy and other medical treatments for his son, Adam, 33, who was born with epilepsy and cerebral palsy - disabilities Kowalewski blames on either the typhus injections he was given at Auschwitz, or a later experiment inflicted on him at Dachau. "I am thankful for what I got," said Kowalewski, looking dapper in a dark suit and vest, his gray hair combed back neatly, as he told his story over a coffee in a Warsaw hotel. "But Germany is rich - richer than us - and I think people who underwent pseudo-medical experiments should be getting payments until the end of their lives," he said. The fund - which follows some earlier German compensation programs - was endowed with €5.1 billion (US$6.7 billion), half coming from the government and the other half from companies that profited from slave labor during the war, among them Volkswagen, DaimlerChrysler, Bayer and Deutsche Bank. German lawmakers approved the fund in 2001 following two years of intricate negotiations and months of legal wrangling over the dismissal of U.S. lawsuits against some of the German companies. Some money remains, which the foundation says will go to other humanitarian projects. "This money helped me a lot - without it I could have just died," said Yakov Sivakov, a 75-year-old from Belarus, who used half his money on cancer treatment. The rest went to fixing up his vintage, 1960s house in Vitebsk, some 300 kilometers (185 miles) northeast of Minsk, the capital. Sivakov was only 11 when he was sent alone to Germany as a forced laborer. There, he dragged heavy sacks 12 hours a day at a facility in Crimmitschau. He got two meals a day and was severely beaten by a guard for stealing a gnawed apple core. "In Germany they treated us worse than slaves," said Sivakov. In the former Soviet Union, the payments also served as a form of "moral rehabilitation" for a group that suffered double persecution, Saathoff said. Many who returned to lands ruled by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin were abused as traitors simply for having been in enemy hands. One such victim was novelist Anita Liepa, a Latvian compensated for working as kitchen help as a teenager in the Zollschule Reserve Military Hospital in Flensburg, Germany. Moscow, which annexed her country to the Soviet Union, accused her of "spying for the fascists" and sentenced her in 1953 to seven years of imprisonment and three years' exile in Archangelsk, in the Far North, and the Urals. Liepa is saving the more than €2,000 (US$2,620) she got to pay for her burial. "I am thankful to Germany," said Liepa, the author of 15 books. "I don't expect to see similar compensation for the forced labor I endured in the forests and peat bogs of Russia."