As of next week, as many as 60,000 needy survivors in the United States are expected to begin receiving checks of about $500 each from the Swiss humanitarian fund.
“That means that by the end of next month, the Swiss fund will have paid 100,000 needy survivors worldwide,” said Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress.The fund, which totals almost $200 million, was created nearly two years ago by Swiss banks, corporations and the Swiss National Bank. It was established to provide immediate help to needy survivors in the wake of claims that Swiss banks hoarded the deposits of Nazi victims. A $1.25 billion settlement of those claims was reached by Swiss banks earlier this year.
The fund is being distributed internationally, with the amount of money dependent on the number of survivors in each country. In the United States, which received $32.4 million, distribution was administered with the help of the New York State Banking Department. The deadline for applications is Nov. 30.
Steinberg said the fund received about 150,000 phone inquiries and 90,000 requests for applications. To qualify for the fund, individuals had to be needy Jewish survivors who had lived under Nazi or collaborationist regimes.
There was no definition of the word “needy” and Steinberg said it was hoped that fund payments would be maximized for those who are truly in need. But he said need could be viewed several ways, including the psychological burdens survivors face.
Avraham Burg, chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, said he had met a New York multi-billionaire a month ago who told him, “I want that $500 like no other money in my life. It is the most important money I’ll ever have.”
Steinberg said he understood such sentiment, “given the suffering under the Nazis.” But he stressed that this fund was to be used for humanitarian purposes, not for reparations.Still to be paid their $59 million share of the humanitarian fund are Israel’s survivors, who number several hundred thousand. Those payments are expected to begin shortly, following the finalization last week of a distribution plan that would involve Israel’s national health insurance program and the central body of Holocaust survivors.
Steinberg said the approximately 45,000 survivors in 11 Eastern European nations who received $400 from the fund in the last year would be receiving another $600 starting early next year. In all, the fund is distributing $59 million in Eastern Europe.
There are another several thousand more survivors in Latin America and Western Europe who are receiving the balance of the fund.
Meanwhile, the World Jewish Restitution Organization met in Jerusalem last week and decided how to divide the $1.25 billion Swiss bank settlement once all valid dormant account claims are paid. The organization said 55 percent of the money will go directly to needy survivors, another 25 percent to groups that provide services to Holocaust victims, and 20 percent to Holocaust programs.
That division must be approved by Brooklyn Federal Judge Edward Korman, who has not yet set a hearing date, according to Steinberg.
Edgar Bronfman, president of the WJRO, said the agreement “shows the world that we are a solid group. That’s what we wanted to accomplish; the rest was housekeeping.”
Eliahu Flug, secretary general of the Centre of Organizations of Holocaust Survivors in Israel, said this money should be very helpful. He noted that “every fourth man who is in a psychiatric hospital in Israel is a survivor. And there are 16,000 handicapped survivors here who have not been helped until now.”
He estimated that each needy survivor will receive $2,000 to $3,000 from the settlement. Each country will have to define for itself who is needy, Flug said. “I hope this money will be distributed next year,” he said. “For us, the largest enemy is time.”
Bobby Brown, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s diaspora affairs adviser, said a six-member committee would recommend which groups are to receive a share of the money for providing services to survivors. The WJRO and the government of Israel would approve the list.In another development, Brown said the government of Poland has become receptive to restoring Jewish communal property stolen by the Nazis. The value of the property —buildings and land — is said to be about $3 billion. It was appropriated by the Polish government after the war and is now used by the Polish government, army and schools.
Ownership of the property would be divided among the WJRO, the Polish Jewish community and organizations, including possibly the government of Israel.
“It’s a very special place because 3.2 million Jews were killed there,” said Brown, “and we have to be sensitive to what justice demands and the country can do.” Brown said also that the government of Israel has pledged 100,000 shekels ($25,000) to an international effort aimed at restoring the crumbling administration building at Auschwitz. But he said Israel’s contribution would not be made until the controversial crosses at Auschwitz are removed.