More on the Claims Conference: A Half Truth Is A Whole Lie

More on the Claims Conference: A Half Truth Is A Whole Lie

Isi Leibler’s Opinion article, "Clean Up the Claims Conference" (Aug. 27), shocked and infuriated me.

Leibler, an Australian-Israeli who was once vice president of the World Jewish Congress, fancies himself a defender of Holocaust survivors. Unfortunately for them, he makes false allegations that have put negotiations with the Germans, among others, at risk. I found it ironic when a few minutes after I read the article, I got a call from a Jewish Week fact-checker who needed material about the Claims Conference. He had two errors in his story and I easily corrected them. If only someone had called me before they ran the Leibler article.

I am the treasurer of the Claims Conference and a chief negotiator with the Germans. My involvement with the Claims Conference is for the sole purpose of assisting and aiding needy Holocaust survivors throughout the world. Everyone there, including the chairman, Julius Berman, knows how unrelenting I can be, which happens occasionally, when I feel survivors are being short-changed. I am hardly a rubber stamp.

Leibler thinks the Claims Conference has $1 billion stashed away from properties that were reclaimed in East Germany. He wants to follow the money by demanding the republication of that list of properties, first published in 2003, which are at the heart of the funds the Claims Conference distributes to survivors in need every year. The list was published because the Claims Conference wanted people to file claims, but we imposed a deadline in March 2004, a deadline that had been pushed back a number of times. If that 2003 list is republished now, people will think they will be able to file claims, but they will not be able to do so. Many properties have already been sold and the money has gone to heirs and to survivors in need.

It is the sale of these properties that allows the Claims Conference to make rational financial decisions and to give survivors money to live on. Without properly projecting income, support to survivors would almost come to a complete halt, and that would be tragic. My only regret is that no matter how much the Claims Conference has accomplished, we never seem to be doing enough because the need is always much greater than the availability of funds.

The Claims Conference Financial Statement is accessible to the public on the Internet and in our publications. We are audited internally and externally and it clearly states the accurate breakdown of the monies, which is pretty much as follows:

1. Approximately $210 million is being held for payments to heirs of properties expropriated by the Nazis that the Claims Conference recovered, but whose cases have not yet been properly resolved.

2. Approximately $360 million is set aside and already allocated for home care, food, medicine and other health-related programs for needy survivors. This money is paid out when we receive proper documentation of need. Most of this money comes from the sale of unclaimed properties.

3. Because we have a rapidly aging survivor population (the youngest survivor is about 67) approximately $540 million is allocated at the rate of about $135 million for the next few years. As the survivor population ages, additional financial assistance will be required to meet their basic needs. Most of this money also comes from the sale of unclaimed properties.

Why is it important and critical for the Claims Conference to generate funds from these properties? It’s because the organized Jewish community talks a great deal about the plight of needy survivors while they exploit the Holocaust to raise funds for themselves, yet most organizations only help survivors if they receive Claims Conference monies to do so. If they don’t get money, the survivors don’t get help. It is also vital to note that the sale of recovered properties in Germany has declined substantially, and in the future there will be much less money available from that source.

When we completely run out of money, we will need larger sums from outside sources to satisfy even the minimum needs of the survivors. Thus, at this point, negotiations with the German government become even more crucial then they were in the past.

So imagine what it is like when we come to the table and the Germans say to us, "You have a billion dollars, why come to us?" And thanks to accusations from Isi Leibler and others like him, in their minds, they may also be thinking," Are you cheaters as well?" Isi Leibler and others like him do the survivor community a huge disservice when they pull figures out of the air, and make baseless accusations. It costs us in the negotiations, and every dollar we lose hurts a survivor somewhere.

Even with the numerous obstacles and frustrations and challenges that the Claims Conference faces, in the last analysis it is the only entity that-for the moment- substantially improves the conditions of survivors in need. But when the time comes to do fundraising, how will we get grants from even local communities when they hear that we have an "imaginary" huge sum of money and that we misuse it? What do we tell the survivors who may believe this fairytale?

Which brings us to Leibler’s accusation that we have shrugged off the fraud case. Last spring, Claims Conference employees discovered a scam that bilked the organization out of millions of dollars. The Claims Conference reported it to the FBI and the Attorney General, and we continue to participate in the investigation. It was so sophisticated and well organized a scheme that even after six months, the FBI is still baffled. The deception was intricate enough to escape eligibility screeners and detection not only by Claims Conference personnel, but also by supervisory authorities. The Claims Conference takes this fraud very seriously and has swept nothing under the rug.

What we have accomplished for Holocaust survivors at the Claims Conference is something we should be proud of. It is historic, important and mostly positive. We at the Claims Conference have conducted ourselves with dignity during negotiations with German officials that produced positive financial results, and accomplished a moral victory, including a public apology from the President of Germany who said, "I pay tribute to all who were subjected to slave and forced labor under German rule and, in the name of the German people, beg forgiveness."

One of the lessons of the Holocaust is that you should not believe everything you read or hear. Unfortunately we survivors know from past experience there are too many "false prophets." As for me, I will continue to fight on behalf of my fellow survivors. I will not quit, because that is the easy way out. And there is nothing easy about meeting the needs of the aging survivors.

Roman Kent, a Holocaust survivor, is treasurer of the Claims Conference.

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