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Holocaust Groups Demand More Compensation from Germany
By Christoph Schult in Jerusalem
More than 60 years after the Holocaust, survivors and their heirs are filing new claims for compensation against Germany. And the Israeli government wants Berlin to provide additional payments of millions of euros to help pay for social services for survivors.
Israeli groups representing Holocaust victims are demanding more money from the German and Israeli governments. Here a protestor holds up a Star of David during an Aug. 5 demonstration in Jerusalem.
The old man holds up a black-and-white photograph, yellowed with age. It depicts a young boy sitting on the branch of a tree. He is holding an apple in his hand and smiling at the camera.
The old man is also smiling, revealing, under his wrinkles and his carefully trimmed moustache, the same shy smile as on the face of the boy in the photo. "My childhood was very brief," says the old man. He pauses, takes a deep breath and corrects himself: "Actually, I didn't have a childhood."
Alex Orli, 72, sits in an office in the Israeli city of Rehovot and talks about the winter of 1942/43. He describes how the Germans descended upon the city where he was born, Zhovkva, in present-day Ukraine. He talks about how they killed his father and then his mother, and how a relative smuggled him and his younger sister out of the ghetto and then handed them a piece of paper with an address on it: Kopinskiego Street 33.
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Now, 65 years later, Orli knows that he is alive today to tell his story because of the man who opened the door at that address. The man was a devout Catholic. He led the children into a bunker with a ceiling so low that even the seven-year-old Alex was unable to stand upright. Sixteen Jews were already sitting in the room, packed tightly together, including his aunt and uncle.
It was a dangerous situation. Had anyone outside seen the children enter the house? There was a vote. The majority was in favor of handing over the children to the Gestapo. But one Polish man refused.
Alex remembers each word of the sentence that saved his life and that of his sister. "If the children survived the ghetto and made it to this house," said the devout Pole, "then God wants them to stay alive."
Of an estimated 250,000 people alive worldwide who survived the Holocaust as children, about 120,000 now live in Israel. Like Orli, most of these people, known as "children of the Shoah," suppressed their stories for a long time. In the first few years after the war, no one in Israel wanted to hear about what they had gone through. Instead, everyone focused on building the Jewish state.
The survivors also suppressed their fates, started families and embarked on their careers. Only now, with most of them retired, are the memories rising to the surface once again. In many cases, the memories are accompanied by the desire to hold accountable the people who robbed them of their childhood.
Many of the victims received no compensation. Some were orphans whose guardians or adoptive families had no idea that they were entitled to compensation. Others felt it was beneath them to ask for money from the heirs of the perpetrators of the Holocaust. Orli, together with other survivors, has formed an organization called YESH -- Children and Orphans Holocaust Survivors in Israel, which is preparing a lawsuit against Germany. "We want the German government to recognize our suffering," says Orli.
Amit Shabi / Laif
Alex Orli: "I didn't have a childhood."
A lot of money is at stake. The representatives of the children of the Shoah are demanding more than the usual compensation. They want their clients to receive an orphan's pension -- "the same as the children of fallen Wehrmacht soldiers," Orli explains. His organization wants every surviving member of the children of the Shoah to be paid ﾛ7,200 for each year spent as an orphan. For the 250,000 survivors still alive today, that would come to ﾛ1.8 billion per orphaned year. The Holocaust survivors' group also wants the German government to pay for health disorders and the loss of career opportunities.
The children of the Shoah are not the only survivors' rights group filing new claims against Germany. Indeed, the German government is facing a wave of lawsuits and new demands. Some of those filing the current suits were forgotten when the original compensation treaties were drawn up, some were deliberately left out, and others missed the necessary deadlines. Holocaust reparations have become an "endless story," says Constantin Goschler, a German historian and author of the definitive work "Schuld und Schulden. Die Politik der Wiedergutmachung fur NS-Verfolgte seit 1945" ("Guilt and Debts. The Politics of Reparations for Nazi Victims since 1945").
The material aspects of the process of dealing with Germany's Nazi past, begun right after the war by then Chancellor Konrad Adenauer and then Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, were originally supposed to have been completed by the late 1960s. After tough negotiations between the Jewish Claims Conference (JCC) and Germany, the German parliament, the Bundestag, ratified the "Final Federal Compensation Law" in 1965, which set a 1969 deadline for the filing of complaints. There was considerable agreement between the parties at the time, so much so that then JCC Chairman Nahum Goldmann called the German law a "harmonious settlement."
He was wrong, as has become clear today. In addition to lawsuits being filed by various victims' groups, the Jewish Claims Conference is back at the negotiating table with the German Finance Ministry. The Israeli government is also calling on Berlin to make additional payments, even though Jerusalem signed a written promise, after the end of the compensation negotiations, that the Jewish state would "file no further claims against the Federal Republic of Germany."
Paying for Death and Suffering
Compensation paid by the Federal Republic of Germany to victims of the Nazi regime ﾛ bn
Final Federal Compensation Law 44.54
Retrospective payments for hardship cases 2.78
Compensation for stolen property 2.02
Payments made to the state of Israel 1.53
Special funds of Germany's federal states for individual cases 1.53
Payments made to other countries 1.46
Miscellaneous payments 6.80
The "Remembrance, Responsibility and Future" Foundation (payments to former forced laborers) 2.56
Source: German Finance Ministry, 2005 figuresHolocaust survivors today criticize the head negotiators at the time for having accepted an inferior deal. "The Israeli government wanted money to build the state," says Jos Brunner, director of the Minerva Institute for German History at the University of Tel Aviv. "They weren't as interested in the survivors back then."
The costs of providing social services to Holocaust survivors in Israel rose sharply, especially as a result of the unexpected immigration of tens of thousands of survivors from the former Soviet Union. The Israeli state ended up paying far more to its Holocaust survivors than it had received from Germany for the purpose. In addition to compensation for individual survivors, Germany paid ﾛ1.5 billion to the Israeli government. However, Jerusalem spent close to five times that amount. "It was a negotiating mistake for which Israel paid a high price," says Raul Teitelbaum, author of a soon-to-be-published book about the mathematics of compensation, "The Biological Solution."
But even that money wasn't enough. About 80,000 Holocaust survivors still live in poverty in Israel today. In August the state comptroller, a sort of Israeli ombudsman for all kinds of disputes and controversies, published a report sharply critical of the government for its treatment of Holocaust survivors. According to the report, the state has "the ultimate moral obligation to address the welfare of the Holocaust survivors without delay." The government's lapses are all the more serious, wrote the state comptroller, because the reparations agreement deprived the survivors of the right to demand compensation from Germany.
After months of negotiations, the Israeli government increased its financial assistance to survivors by hundreds of millions of euros. Now Jerusalem is trying to get some of the money back from the Germans.
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