Faced with a growing chorus of criticism from across the Jewish community and heart-wrenching news stories of survivors unable to pay medical bills, the organization that handles the allocation of Holocaust restitution funds is to re-examine its disbursement policy at its July board meeting here.
It would be the first time in a decade that the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany has reconsidered its policy of distributing 80 percent of the Holocaust restitution money it receives to social service agencies that care for survivors. The remaining 20 percent is distributed for Holocaust education and memorials.
"At the request of various parties, we will more than likely place this on the agenda and review the entire issue," said Julius Berman, chairman of the board of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany. "We will either reaffirm the decision or make whatever changes the board determines."
The reassessment comes just a week after the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, a coalition of 123 local and 13 national Jewish organizations, overwhelmingly approved a resolution at its plenum in Baltimore opposing the 80-20 formula.
And this week the United Jewish Communities, the umbrella organization for 189 Jewish federations in North America, said it was in the beginning stages of creating a task force to examine the issue.
"The UJC will take up the cause because several federation agency executives have raised this as a serious concern, including Miami and Boston," said Nancy Kaufman, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston. "While we believe in Holocaust education, we believe this particular pot of money must go to meet the needs of Holocaust survivors."
Her organization and the JCRC in Miami cosponsored the resolution at the JCPA critical of the 80-20 split. Kaufman said the Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Greater Boston is seeking to ìmeet the needs of survivors, but it does not have enough resources to service all of those who come through its doors."
Sam Dubbin, chairman of the Miami JCRC, pointed out that survivors’ organizations have been objecting to the 80-20 split for many years.
"One reason I’m distressed is that the Claims Conference is ignoring the clear sense of the broad-based Jewish community," he said. "Miami has 350 [needy] survivors and we know they only get half the care they need, and hundreds of others are not getting care because they are not coming forward."
Dubbin cited a survey conducted last year by Bert Goldberg, president of the Association of Jewish Family and Children’s Agencies, which said that 8,000 survivors are believed to be in need of home care but have yet to come forward. The study concluded that an additional $30 million is needed to help survivors who are not getting assistance and who would come forward through an outreach effort.
It found that 21,000 survivors are being served by various Jewish family service agencies throughout North America.
Leo Rechter, executive director of the National Association of Jewish Child Holocaust Survivors, said his organization has long objected to the 80-20 split.
"We are not saying that the allocations they are making [for Holocaust education projects] are not worthwhile," Rechter said. "In general they are very charitable causes, but they should not be supported by money that first and foremost should go to survivors.
"The majority of survivors are not needy, thank God. But those who are should be taken care of first and foremost."
Gideon Taylor, executive vice chairman of the Claims Conference, said his organization believes there are about 800,000 survivors still alive, including those who fled ahead of the Nazis. But it is difficult to say how many are needy, he said, because the term could be applied to a host of needs.
One person may require round-the-clock nursing care at home, Taylor said, while another may need a home attendant for just five days a week and another just a few hours a day. And still others want a social place to go once a week.
"That’s a need, but it is not expensive," Taylor said.
The Claims Conference last week posted for the first time on its Web site (www.claimscon.org) a detailed list of how the organization allocated the $82 million it received last year from the $5 billion German Foundation and from the sale of unclaimed Jewish-owned property in the former East Germany. On top of that was the $4.2 million the Claims Conference distributed from the Swiss bank settlement.
Of the total $86 million disbursed last year, $76.8 million went to social service agencies that assist survivors.
The Claims Conference believes that 14 percent to 16 percent of survivors live in the United States and it allocated to the U.S. last year 15.6 percent of the money disbursed for survivors’ assistance.
Taylor noted that another $15 million is to be distributed to needy survivors worldwide in the coming months as a result of an agreement principally with German insurance companies. That agreement was concluded last week after nearly five years of negotiations.
The $15 million is the first of 10 installments in as many years from a $132 million humanitarian fund the companies established.
Taylor said about $25 million more may be added from insurance companies in France, Austria and Switzerland, depending on how much in Holocaust-era insurance claims they must still pay. To date, 59,000 claims have been filed; offers have been made on 2,854 claims.
Although the deadline for filing claims is March 31, it is expected to be extended, Taylor said.
The 54-member board of the Claims Conference is not unified in its support for the 80-20 formula. Its treasurer, Roman Kent, said that although he believes in Holocaust education, he has always believed that split was wrong.
"To spend 20 percent of the money that is needed for Holocaust survivors is not proper," Kent said, adding that a more "reasonable amount" would be acceptable.
But board member Eli Zborowski said the proceeds from the sale of East German property belong to the heirs of all Jews and not just to survivors. And he observed that the Claims Conference should not bear the sole burden of providing health care for survivors, arguing that Jewish federations and organizations should also contribute.
The Claims Conference filed nearly 100,000 claims for East German property after German reunification in 1991. To date, Germany has determined that 9,000 are heirless Jewish property and compensated the Claims Conference for 5,700 of them. In addition, the Claims Conference has sold 1,600 of the other properties.
As of last September, the Claims Conference had reaped $1.05 billion relating to the property. Of that, $150 million was returned to the rightful property owners who had missed the German deadline for applying but pressed their claim with the Claims Conference. Another $152 million was held in reserve for future claims and $250 million was set aside to cover the social service needs of survivors once the current revenue stream ends. Using the 80-20 formula, the Claims Conference thus far has allocated $451 million for projects.
Rechter said he would like the Claims Conference to publish or post on the Internet a complete list of unclaimed Jewish property it has obtained in East Germany with the name of the Jewish family that last owned it. He said this practice, which the Swiss banks followed, would aid those considering filing claims.
But Taylor said the Claims Conference extensively publicized the fact that those who missed the German deadline for filing claims could apply to the Claims Conference. He noted that 75 percent of those who filed such claims have received the money the Claims Conference sold their property for, minus a 20 percent administrative fee.