- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 21, 2003

JERUSALEM — Aging Holocaust survivors, many in their late 70s and 80s, are complaining they suffer from poverty, insufficient medical care and inadequate housing while the organization that is supposed to care for them sponsors costly educational projects and pays its executives lavish salaries.

The criticisms are directed at the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, which consists of 24 Jewish organizations based in the United States and other countries.

It funnels money allocated by the German government to Jews who were interned in Nazi death camps, were confined to ghettos and suffered religious and racial persecution during World War II.

The claims conference, as it is popularly known, has financial reserves that exceed $1 billion, according to experts.

The sum not only includes the constant and punctual flow of funds from the Berlin government, but also money from dormant Swiss bank accounts whose original owners perished in the Holocaust and life-insurance policies never redeemed by their beneficiaries.

At the modest office of the Organization of Former Prisoners of the Nazis in downtown Jerusalem, Yosef Fuchs laughed when asked how much money he receives from the claims conference.

He said it deposits 810 euros ($945) in his bank account every three months.

“You cannot exist on that money,” he said.

Mr. Fuchs’ plight mirrors that of an estimated half-million Holocaust survivors, most of whom no longer have gainful employment and many of whom face the prospect of geriatric care that they cannot afford.

It applies to wartime death camp inmates, ghetto resistance fighters and slave laborers around the world, including in the United States.

The American survivors’ bitterness and disappointment was expressed by Leo Rechter, executive director of the National Association of Jewish Holocaust Survivors.

Addressing a U.S. Jewish community session on services rendered to Holocaust survivors, Mr. Rechter said: “U.S. soldiers who were prisoners in Iraq for 10 days are received as heroes, but survivors who were enslaved for years are treated like second-class citizens or mendicants.”

Israel Singer, president of the claims conference, justified its manifold activities beyond the transfer of payments to individual survivors, although he conceded that “the cultural activities must take second place to their needs.”

He said it was essential to act against “Holocaust denial” in Germany and to promote “informational projects” around the world.

Mr. Singer stressed that he waived salary or other compensation for the work he does on behalf of the claims conference.

He declined to comment on salaries paid to several of its top executives — $360,000 annually in one case.

He also declined to discuss legal fees: $600,000 to an American attorney for services rendered. “Those are the salaries in American-Jewish life,” he said.

Mr. Rechter said the priority given to education and cultural efforts is too high.

“A $50,000 sponsorship of a symposium or other nonessential project could have paid for at least 4,000 hours of home care,” he said.

Referring to the “critical needs” of aging survivors, Mr. Rechter said thousands are “lying alone, plagued with their memories of their horrific sufferings during the Nazi years and racked with despair how the world is abandoning them once again.”

There are an estimated 500,000 Holocaust survivors worldwide of whom 127,000 to 145,000 live in the United States.

A resolution passed May 1, 2003, by the California State Assembly states that “many are elderly and infirm and some are living in abject poverty and lacking basic needs including food, shelter and medical care.”

The ultimate anomaly cited by the claims conference’s critics here and abroad is its relatively vast financial resources compared to its parsimonious monthly allocations.

“Its distribution system is an utter failure,” a senior Israeli official said, contending that “thousands of survivors do not receive enough money, medical treatment, food or shelter.”

Martin Stern, whose grandparents died in Auschwitz after being deported from Czechoslovakia in 1944, referred to the claims conference’s demand that it be granted ownership of 98,417 properties in former East Germany that had no legally confirmed claimants when the communist regime collapsed.

Ultimately, it gained possession of 8,089 of them, which were defined as having been “expropriated” from their original Jewish owners by the Nazis. “This turned the claims conference into reunified Germany’s biggest single real estate owner,” Mr. Stern said.

He also assailed the claims conference for having enlarged its treasury with the failure to return most of the dormant Swiss bank accounts to their rightful heirs.

“The Swiss bank audit, the most expensive audit in history, resulted in over 353,000 names of potential account holders,” Mr. Stern wrote in the Jerusalem Post. “But, of these, barely 21,000 were listed in the Internet following acrobatic compromises.”

He pointed out that the amount set aside in the settlement by the Swiss banks to pay bank account holders was $800 million.

Describing a similar case of dealing with Holocaust victims’ unclaimed life insurance policies by companies that had and still have headquarters in Switzerland, France, Italy, Germany, Holland and Austria among others, Mr. Stern laments the fact that the unpaid benefits accrue to the claims conference.

Critics say $40 million in administrative expenses by the International Commission of Holocaust Era Insurance Claims (ICHEIC) is excessive.

ICHEIC was set up in 1998 by the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, the World Jewish Congress, Israel and several European insurance companies that issued policies to European Jews destined to perish in the Holocaust: Assicurazioni Generali, AXA, Alliance, Swiss Life and Winterthur Versicherung.

A recent congressional hearing on its activities was told that its operations cost $58 million to date, while its disbursements to claimants of these policies was $36 million.

It “makes deals without any intention of giving the money that accrues to anyone, but just to get into its own coffers,” Mr. Stern said.

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