As the process of filing claims can be difficult to undertake, the Holocaust Claims Processing Office (HCPO) of New York State Banking Department, created in June 1997, has been helpful in providing assistance to individuals seeking to recover assets lost because of Nazi persecution. The HCPO has helped claimants to collect as much detailed and accurate information as possible.
In contrast, the major disquieting issue concerning justice for Holocaust survivors or their heirs remains unresolved, as does the question of the moral compass of a major organization founded to deal with the consequences of the Nazi regime and material claims against Germany for the mistreatment of Jews. The controversy concerns the activities and non-activities of the Claims Conference (Conference on Jewish Material Claims against Germany), CC, founded in October 1951, largely at the urging of Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, with 23 Jewish organizations as members, to negotiate with the Germany Government for compensation for Jewish victims of Nazi persecution
By an agreement signed in 1952 and entered into force in 1953 the West German Government agreed to pay Israel for the persecution of Jews during the Holocaust and to pay compensation for Jewish property stolen by the Nazis. Chancellor Konrad Adenauer on September 27, 1951 had declared that "unspeakable crimes" had been committed, and therefore restitution, moral and material, was necessary for the person and properties of the Jews who had been seriously harmed. The West Germans therefore paid billions in reparations through different programs to those who had suffered physical injury or loss of property and income. Today, the German government is still paying compensation pensions to those Jewish victims eligible to receive them.
After the reunification of Germany, the new German government passed legislation to restore expropriated property, or its value, to the original Jewish owners or their heirs. In August 1990 the CC negotiated with the German government for Jewish owners and their heirs to file claims for unresolved property in the former East Germany, and to recover unclaimed formerly Jewish properties in that area. About 600 million euros of the funds received by the CC found its way to the families of the victims or their heirs via the Goodwill Fund. The German government believed that the CC was acing on behalf of the heirs of the victims. Decisions on how to allocate these monies were made by the CC at its discretion in various ways.
The critical problem arose as a result of the agreement by the German government to transfer unclaimed properties to the CC. The CC had to make a claim within the time limits imposed by the relevant German law and substantiate the claim that the property had in fact been owned by a Jewish owner. These unclaimed assets, the accepted figure of which is about $4.5 billion, were sold by the CC which gave the money to Holocaust survivors or for Holocaust education, documentation, and research. However, the German government had set deadlines for potential heirs to claim properties; deadlines were December 31, 1992 for real estate, and June 20, 1993 for moveable assets. After 1992, properties where no heir was found went to the CC.
The German government did not object to the CC transferring property to heirs who had missed the filing deadlines. In 1994, responding to pressure, the CC set up the Goodwill Fund to help heirs who missed the deadlines to make claims. It set its own deadline of December 31, 1997, then extended it to December 31, 1998. The Fund therefore operated for five years, and then again for a period of 6 months, from October 2003 to March 2004 when it was closed. A major criticism resulted from the short term of the Fund, and another over the distribution of the money held by the CC.
The various concerns about the CC, led the Board of Deputies of British Jews, which since 1760 is the body promoting and defending the religious and civil liberties of British Jewry, and which consists of deputies elected by synagogue congregations and communal organizations, to inquire into the persistent complaints about the activities of the CC. As a result it commissioned a report on the issue of the properties and businesses formerly owned by Jews in East Germany. The report, delivered on December 2, 2010, was written by a highly respected barrister, Jeffrey Gruder, QC.
The report was critical on a number of counts. There were no allegations of corruption or malfeasance on the part of the directors of CC, but there was concern about competence, lack of transparency and accountability, and misplaced priorities in the distribution of resources and money. It concluded that the CC had not done enough to help heirs of victims recover their property. A major shortcoming was that the CC had possessed information that might have been helpful to owners and heirs in making a claim but did not publicize the information, at least until October 2003 and then the information remained accessible only for six months. The list, which the CC provided, of Jewish property in East Germany without heirs was incomplete: it lacked information on names, addresses, and amount of compensation. It also did not publish details of properties without heirs which it recovered or claimed before the deadlines.
The CC appeared to lack commitment to the restitution of expropriated property, and had not done enough to help potential heirs locate their assets. It felt it had no obligation to owners or heirs. The Gruder Report found that the CC rejected any obligation to assist owners and heirs in making a claim within the relevant time limit, and that it disclaimed any duty to provide information to help claimants to take advantage of the Goodwill Fund. The Report further argued that the Fund should be reopened for new claims, and that the CC had a moral duty to publish the information it had, and to assist and identify any heirs who were rightful claimants.
It does not appear reasonable to accept the CC's explanation for its failure to disclose information: protection of intellectual property and trade secrets. Another troubling issue, one familiar in the intellectual cultural scene, is lack of information about missing looted art. It is regrettable that the CC has for over a year and a half refused to answer questions about this looted art.
An equally important moral and ethical problem arose over the use of funds held by the CC. On one hand, some of the funds have been used for Holocaust education and Jewish cultural activity which all agree is beneficial. On the other hand allegations have been made that insufficient resources go to help Holocaust survivors who are living in poverty and lacking in indignity. The moral compass of the CC depends on its answer to this problem.
Michael Curtis is Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Rutgers University, and author of Should Israel Exist? A Sovereign Nation under Attack by the International Community.