Despite complaints from survivors and others that money from the sale of heirless Jewish property in Germany should be used exclusively for the care of needy, aging survivors, the board of the organization that controls those funds voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to continue allocating 20 percent for educational purposes.
But opponents of the move vowed to continue to press their case and convince the Claims Conference to reconsider its decision.
"We will continue the collective protest," said Rick Mann, president of the Friends of the New England Holocaust Memorial. "I think there is a growing protest within the Jewish community."
He said that although he has no doubt about the sincerity of those who disagree with him, he views the issue "at the extreme as a choice between preserving
memory and preserving life and dignity."
Michael Bohnen, chairman of the board of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, representing more than 122 Jewish Community Relations Councils in the U.S., said his organization was "disappointed" with the Claims Conference’s action. His organization had in February called upon that the Claims Conference to end the split and spend all of the money on needy survivors.
"We hope that as additional funds become available, including funds from the Swiss bank settlement and insurance assets, that those funds be devoted to the needs of the survivors," Bohnen added.
In defending the education allocations, Eli Zborowski, founding president of the American Federation of Survivors Organizations, said "there should be for needy survivors: I’m for it. But they should be directing their request to the Jewish community at large."
Roman Kent, a survivor and treasurer of the Claims Conference, said he abstained from voting because he believed the group should "curtail our activities on educational funding as long as survivors need it."
He said the older survivors become, the more help they need. He suggested that Holocaust education continue to be funded, but with money from the $5 billion German Foundation.
Asked if he was upset with the vote of his fellow board members, Kent replied: "Yes, I expected more understanding about the plight of the survivors."
The Claims Conference board is comprised of 57 members including 24 organizations (among them 16 Holocaust groups), representatives of the State of Israel, and individuals appointed by Holocaust groups.
The plight of needy survivors has received national media attention in the last several months. And it touched off a debate that led to Tuesday’s vote. Many survivor groups, Jewish federations and a major communal group believe the money should be used exclusively to help destitute survivors.
In their closed-door, three-hour discussion, the board of the Claims Conference adopted a resolution saying it "views assisting the most vulnerable Jewish victims of Nazi persecution as the highest priority … including the provision for homecare, medical assistance, hunger relief, assistance with living expenses, and other vital services that lend added dignity to the lives of aging Nazi victims in more than 30 countries."
But it went on to say that "there is an obligation to use a small portion [of the funds] to preserve the memory of the 6 million killed in order that the world does not forget how they lived and how they died."
Minutes before their vote, Holocaust survivor and author Elie Wiesel told the 50 delegates in attendance that theirs was not an easy decision.
"It’s a very delicate thing to deal with money in public," he said. "Future generations will judge all of us [asking], ‘What did you do in the name of the dead and also for the living.’"
To date the Claims Conference reports that it has received $1 billion from the sale of heirless Jewish property in former East Germany, about $365 million of which has been spent on social service programs for survivors and $85 million for Holocaust educational. Another $250 million has been put away to be used sometime in the future for the long-term care of Jewish survivors, and the rest has been set aside to pay claims by the owners of the property.
Although the Claims Conference codified its 80-20 split in 1995, complaints about it were only heard in the last two or three years. In the last several months, criticism has intensified, prompting the Claims Conference’s reconsideration.
Helping to fuel the debate was a 2002 report by the Association of Jewish Family and Children’s Agencies, which estimated that 40 percent of the 127,000 to 145,000 survivors in the United States do not have the $30 million needed annually to pay for their home and medical needs. In addition, it said that about 8,000 survivors are believed in need of homecare but have not come forward.
In an interview before the Claims Conference vote, Israel Singer, the group’s president, said: "If there is one Holocaust survivor who is starving, in pain or humiliated, we have to take care of that person." But he then suggested that such help must be within reason, pointing out: "There’s no end to making people’s lives better."
After the vote, Leo Rechter, a survivor who heads the National Association of Jewish Children Holocaust Survivors, vowed: "We won’t give up."
He complained that some of the groups voting to maintain the status quo have a "vested interest in continuing the split because they have been and will continue to be recipients" of Claims Conference grants.
"We know that moral right is in our corner," he said, adding that the Claims Conference has not been alone in supporting Holocaust education. He said the survivors themselves have spearheaded educational efforts and have spoken to Jewish and non-Jewish children about their experiences.
David Schaecter, president of the Holocaust Survivors Foundation, called it an "unbelievable decision."
"I don’t know how the Jewish community can celebrate a victory like that when survivors are sick and dying and despairing," he said. "We put our faith in our people and this is what’s happening. … This is not money that we’re trying to get from anyone. This is money that belongs to survivors. This is blood money."
Many Jewish groups and individuals sent letters to the Claims Conference prior to the meeting to voice their views on the issue. The overwhelming majority favored the present split, although some (particularly survivors’ groups) believed changes should be made.
The Holocaust Survivors Services Committee of the United Jewish Communities, representing 189 Jewish federations in the U.S. and Canada, urged in a letter that the Claims Conference "increase the amount of funding designated for direct services for needy survivors in North America through the use of restitution resources that are under your control or influence. The need is especially acute for those near the poverty line who are not eligible to receive government assistance."