Jewish groups and survivors are taking off the gloves as they vie for a share of the Swiss banks’ $1.25 billion Holocaust-era settlement.
Even the friction between Reform and Orthodox Judaism is coming to the surface, as Reform Jews argue that their institutions in Europe deserve a special share of the money because the Orthodox deny them funding in Germany and Israel.
Reform Jews, who comprised an “overwhelming percentage” of Holocaust victims, “would certainly have been appalled to see funds deriving from their losses given to institutions who question their Jewishness or that of their descendants, or who revile the Judaism they practiced,” said the World Union for Progressive Judaism.
In a letter to Judah Gribetz, the court-appointed special master asked to determine how best to allocate and distribute the settlement, the World Union wrote that most Holocaust victims “would want a substantial share of their property” used to ensure the continuity of their institutions, organizations and movements.
The group’s proposal was one of more than 100 sent to Gribetz from Jewish and non-Jewish organizations and individual survivors. Predictably, most of the survivors want the money to go exclusively to survivors, and the organizations ask that they receive a share to help assist survivors and establish educational programs to revive Jewish life in Europe.
Gribetz, who must come up with his proposal by March 15, has posted a representative sample of the letters on a special Web site, www.swissbankclaims.com.
Among the survivors offering a suggestion is a woman named Agnes, who wrote that after the families of Swiss bank depositors are paid, the rest of the money should be used to pay the cost of every survivors’ nursing home care, assisted living expenses or 24-hour home nursing care.
“This would give us survivors some feeling of justice and would make it easier to face our old age,” she wrote. “This would be much more dignified for us than paying off the sufferings of the victims of the Holocaust with a few hundred dollars each, and giving hundreds of thousands of dollars to institutions which will only take us if we give them our last penny.”
But international Agudas Chasidei Chabad argued that such a distribution would be of “little lasting impact” and fail to recognize the substantial communal assets lost.
“If these assets, stripped from the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe, are not used in part in the effort to rebuild and reclaim the destroyed communities, then Hitler’s posthumous victory will continue,” the group said.
Chabad, which also spoke on behalf of the Lubavitcher communities destroyed in the Holocaust, said the money should be used to sustain and rebuild the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe and Russia, continue services to the survivor communities, and compensate communities for the losses they sustained in the looting.
The Pennsylvania-based Federation of Jewish Child Survivors, on the other hand, wrote that “only individual survivors and no American Jewish organizations other than survivor organizations should participate in the distribution of funds.”
And the National Association of Jewish Child Holocaust Survivors, or Nahos, suggested that once bank depositors and the lawyers in the case are compensated, the money should be split among former slave laborers or their heirs; Jewish survivors who could prove they were denied entry into Switzerland or were admitted and maltreated; and Jewish survivors or their heirs — including children placed in hiding — whose assets or whose parents’ assets were looted or left behind.
“Although the [latter] payments to each claimant are likely to be small, it will nevertheless be a gratifying symbolic recognition,” Nahos said. “To leave many survivors out of this meaningful allocation, at this point in time after expectations in the survivors’ population have been hyped to unreasonable and/or unrealistic proportions, might result in hurtful frustrations and serious psychological distress to the aging Nazi-victims.”
Nahos added that it opposed money going to charitable causes suggested by American Jewish organizations. Such causes, including those that help survivors, should continue to be supported by large Jewish groups that have been “receiving our contributions throughout the years. …” To now suggest that money from the settlement go to these causes is “highly unfair and discriminatory.”
It was responding to the proposal of the World Jewish Restitution Organization, which suggested that 55 percent of the money go to the survivors; 25 percent be allotted to social welfare organizations that serve survivors; and 20 percent be set aside for programs, research and education about the Holocaust, and to continue Jewish life and culture.
The Simon Wiesenthal Center favored equal splits for all survivors, but added that should Gribetz wish to divide some of the money among worthy organizations, “a portion should go to Jewish educational centers.”
The Conference of European Rabbis said the allocation must give special attention to Eastern Europe, “where little to no postwar efforts have been made to rebuild Jewish life.”
“There are hundreds of towns and cities where funding is needed in order to provide facilities to the local Jewish communities,” it wrote. “There can be no better way to commemorate the Holocaust than to provide the guarantee that those that the Nazis sought to destroy continue to flourish as a people with all their traditions and culture. One-and-a-half million Jewish children were murdered during World War II. The survivors do not represent these victims. The Jewish people have to ensure that these children are returned, and [only] providing funding for Jewish education at every level can do this.”
The Russian Jewish Congress asked that Gribetz create a “Russian Fund” kept in Western banks and managed by such public figures as city Comptroller Alan Hevesi and former Sen. Alfonse D’Amato to ensure credibility. It would appropriate money for social and humanitarian programs, anti-defamation efforts, educational and cultural programs, and capital projects.
In making his decision, Gribetz has been asked by Brooklyn Federal Judge Edward Kor-man, who is overseeing the case, to employ “open and equitable procedures to ensure fair consideration of all comments, proposals and suggestions offered” by survivors and their lawyers.
Survivors who wish to comment on Gribetz’s proposed plan may do so no later than May 15. Korman said he would then hold a hearing on June 15 to determine whether to approve Gribetz’s proposal. Distribution of the money, the judge said, will “commence as soon as practicable thereafter.”