At least 17 German banks and industrial firms have agreed to contribute to a fund from which payments will be made to an estimated 100,000 Jews who served as slave laborers during the Holocaust, the German government announced this week. Needy survivors may also be entitled to payments from the fund.
The government hopes the fund will begin making payments to survivors by Sept. 1, the 60th anniversary of Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland and the start of World War II, according to Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress.
The BBC reported that one of the main contributors to the fund, Deutsche Bank, had offered to contribute $1.3 billion to the fund but that it was rejected as too small a sum by U.S. negotiators.
Rainer Munzel, a German government spokesman in New York, said there have been no discussions about the size of the fund and Steinberg also denied that any figures have been mentioned. But Munzel said 17 companies are "already on board and the government is optimistic it will get more to sponsor the fund." One party to the talks said it was hoped that as many as 30 German companies may ultimately contribute. In addition to making payments to the former slave laborers, most of whom live in Eastern Europe, Munzel said the fund is establishing a task force to work out details of the distribution. One of the main contributors, Deutsche Bank, revealed last week that a recent search of its archives had revealed the bank helped to finance the construction of some of the factories at Auschwitz.
"Not many people survived [Auschwitz]," Munzel said. "The task force may also consider a hardship fund for needy survivors. But that is not yet spelled out."
Roman Kent, chairman of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, said he hoped that in addition to slave laborers, the fund would make payments to the "community at large."
The organization’s president, Benjamin Meed, noted that he and Kent were at a meeting Monday in Washington with the chairman of Deutsche Bank, Rolf Breuer, and Bodo Hombach, chief of staff to German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. He said they told them that this was "not only about money, but a moral issue." He said he left convinced that Schroeder’s new government was committed to creating a "new atmosphere" of cooperation on this issue.
"We all came back with the feeling that new winds were blowing," said Meed. He said he told Hombach one way to demonstrate that new era was to eliminate two offensive words Germans have used to characterize reparations. One calls payments a "make good" fund and the other labels recipients as "needy."
"To a survivor, these words are very distressing and humiliating," Meed explained. "No amount of money can ‘make goo’ what the Nazis did. And the Nazis did not make any distinction during the war: they killed us all. We should not repeat their practice of selection. Everybody is entitled to this money: any survivor who went through the Holocaust under Nazi occupation is entitled. If someone is in need, he can go to social service programs in the United States. Need is not their business."
Meed said Hombach was receptive to his suggestions. "If these two words can change, the whole approach can change," said Meed.
New York City Comptroller Alan Hevesi, who has been monitoring the talks, hailed the creation of the fund as a "substantial breakthrough." He has threatened to oppose Deutsche Bank’s planned $10.1 billion merger with Bankers Trust unless survivors’ claims against Deutsche Bank are resolved. The suits claim Deutsche Bank helped to finance the aryanization of Jewish property.
Also attending the Washington talks were U.S. Undersecretary of State Stuart Eizenstat and Bobby Brown, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s diaspora affairs adviser. Brown said the agreement for the fund, which he said Germany is calling the Fund of Memorial and Reconciliation, is a trilateral understanding between Germany, the U.S. and Israel.
He said representatives of the three governments, plus survivors and Jewish representatives, will form the task force that will deal with moral, historical and material restitution. It will address three topics: slave labor, forced labor and economic crimes, including theft of Jewish property. It will also conduct a historical review.
Munzel said money from the fund would also be used to establish a memorial and research center regarding the Holocaust. In addition, it would finance Holocaust education projects for the youth of the U.S., Germany and Israel.
"We have no interest in a fund unless it is of an appropriate amount," he said.