Under a $5.14 billion settlement reached Tuesday with Germany, Nazi slave laborers are expected to receive a one-time payment of about $10,000 in as early as six months, according to an attorney for many of the Jewish victims.
The settlement was reached after yearlong talks between the German government and German industry, and Jewish groups and victims’ lawyers.
"We hope to get a fast-track approach in order to get the money into the hands of survivors quickly," said the attorney, Mel Urbach. "Survivors are tired and don’t want to see us haggle. We hope to have distribution by the middle of next year."
Gideon Taylor, executive vice president of the Conference of Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, said the settlement offered a "measure of much-delayed justice" for both slave and forced laborers. Although since the war Germany has made nearly $60 billion in payments to Jewish victims, no compensation was made for the estimated 12 million slave and forced laborers. Many slave laborers were worked to death.
It is estimated that 240,000 slave laborers are living: about half of them Jewish. Nearly all of the estimated 1.5 million forced laborers were non-Jews.
The settlement also will cover claims against German banks and insurance companies, as well as property that was either stolen from Jews or compelled to be sold for a fraction of their value. More than 70 German companies are to split the cost of the settlement with the government.Some U.S. companies, notably General Motors and Ford, were considering whether to contribute to the settlement. GM has acknowledged that its Opel division used forced laborers, but said the operation was nationalized by the Nazis and therefore compensation should be paid by the government. A class-action suit against Ford was dismissed in a Newark federal court.
Taylor credited U.S. Deputy Treasury Secretary Stuart Eizenstat, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and New York City Comptroller Alan Hevesi with helping to achieve the settlement.
Urbach said a meeting will be held Friday in Berlin to begin developing a memorandum of understanding on who would be eligible for payments and how the money would be divided and distributed. He said, for instance, that someone imprisoned in the horrid conditions of Auschwitz and compelled to work in German factories might expect to receive the entire $10,000 payment. A forced laborer at a company like Siemens, who lived under less harsh conditions, would receive less.
As part of the settlement, lawsuits filed in the United States against German companies would be withdrawn. Urbach said that would avoid subjecting the settlement to a lengthy judicial review, and get the money into the hands of survivors more quickly. He added that the German parliament must approve the government’s share of the settlement, said to be about $2.6 billion.
Those close to the talks said they were in stark contrast to the protracted negotiations with Swiss banks, which were accused of hoarding the deposits of Nazi victims and buying Nazi gold that effectively prolonged the war.
Both the German government and German companies were anxious to settle class-action suits filed against them to forever resolve all claims.
Steven Newman, first deputy city comptroller, said there was never a need for state fiscal officers to even consider applying sanctions against German companies the way they did against Swiss banks. Those sanctions were credited with achieving the $1.25 billion Swiss settlement that is now awaiting court approval.
The German settlement follows last week’s release of a damning report that accused Swiss wartime officials of turning away from their border at least 24,500 Jews who were seeking refuge from Nazi murderers. The report, commissioned by the Swiss government and prepared by an independent panel of historians headed by Jean-Francois Bergier, attributed anti-Semitism to Switzerland’s heartlessness.
The border was closed in 1942 at a time when the Nazis were systematically murdering thousands of Jews daily in an effort to exterminate a people. Those denied Swiss refuge faced almost certain death.
"Switzerland was their last hope," said the Bergier Report. "By creating additional barriers for them to overcome, Swiss officials helped the Nazi regime achieve its goals, whether intentionally or not.
"A more humane policy might have saved thousands of refugees from being killed by the Nazis and their accomplices."
The Swiss government, which in 1995 apologized for not "living up to its humanitarian tradition," reiterated that statement on Friday. This time it fell to Switzerland’s president Ruth Dreifuss, herself a Jew, to issue the statement.
"This apology is still entirely justified in light of the report presented here," she said.
But Dreifuss also denied that Switzerland was in any way complicit in Hitler’s war on the Jews. And she said the report paid too little attention to the threat Switzerland faced from the Nazis and its need to maintain foreign trade to ensure its survival.
The report was praised by Ephraim Zuroff of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, who said Switzerland was "finally confronting its history."