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70 Years of Reckoning with the Past: The Claims Conference

By Randy Pinsky 

“At the end of the Second World War, no country advocated the payment of compensation to [the] Jews; the group that suffered the most from German persecution,” states lawyer-historian Rachel Blumenthal. 

The Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, or ‘the Claims Conference’ organization, was determined to change that.

On October 26, 2021, the Azrieli Institute hosted Blumenthal to celebrate the launch of Right to Reparations: The Claims Conference and Holocaust Survivors, 1951–1964. In securing critical funds for survivors, the organization set a new standard in restorative justice, however rumors of mismanagement shadow its proud legacy…

Rebuilding after Atrocity

In May 1945, Germany finally surrendered, the camps were liberated, and Jewish survivors of the Shoah[1] tried to pick up the pieces of their lives. Refugee agencies sought to assist victims, providing them with support and resources.

But while court proceedings and treaties addressed the egregious crimes, little was done in regards to property stolen and artwork seized. Without this assistance, how could the survivors move forward?

The First of Its Kind

Created in 1951, the Claims Conference organization became their voice.

Representatives met with the German government and demanded an accounting for past wrongs as well as financial reparations for survivors in a revolutionary act of post-conflict justice.

“The federal government and the great majority of the German people are conscious of the immeasurable suffering that was brought to bear upon the Jews in Germany,”  stated the first Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany, Konrad Adenauer, in a landmark address on September 27, 1951. “Unspeakable crimes were perpetrated…[necessitating] the obligation to make moral and material amends.”

Pursuing Justice, One Payment at a Time

For the first time in the history of the Jewish people
the oppressor and plunderer has had to hand back some of the spoils 
and pay collective compensation for part of the material losses” 

Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben Gurion

With persistence and moral fortitude, the Conference lobbied the German government to instate financial packages for survivors and ghetto workers, gradually expanding the eligibility of those entitled to this support. It also successfully won retroactive payments and got thousands of previously rejected applications approved (Canadian Jewish Archives).

Indeed, as a result of its tireless negotiations, more than $90 billion in indemnification has been secured and distributed to survivors since its founding.

"We congratulate the government of Germany for recognizing its historic responsibility to Jewish Holocaust victims, whose advancing age has brought increased hardship to many," said Claims Conference Special Negotiator, Stuart Eizenstat. "In their final years, survivors who need care and services should not have to fear that they will be forgotten.”

But Not All Is Fine…

While the Conference set records in its skillful work, how does this concur with the thousands of survivors living in a state of destitute? Why do so many still struggle to pay basic medical bills, food and rent (Over Half of Israel’s Holocaust Survivors Require Food Handouts)?

Several issues have plagued the organization. An over-representation of white and male leadership led to a lack of a diversity of voices, and there was little transparency on its inner workings (Blumenthal). For instance, greater funds were inexplicably allocated to Spain and Portugal as opposed to Czechoslovakia and England, proportionally more impacted in the war.

But most concerning were allegations of financial mismanagement.

Staff were accorded exceptionally high salaries, justified due to the highly complex skill required in their work, but which led many to question how much of the funds accrued were actually getting to the survivors.

In “Where Did the Shoah Money Go?”, Michal Grayevsky of Ynet questioned the legitimacy of Claims President Isaac Singer who had been charged with ‘financial irregularities’ while Secretary General of the World Jewish Congress.While the Claims organization insists he does not have discretion over funding, his frequent trips, luxury hotels and restaurants are a bit disconcerting.

Such findings were reinforced by Isi Leibler, columnist at Israel Hayom in “At the Expense of the Survivors.” The lack of independent audits and unconscionable misappropriation of funds, he argues, “could well prove to be the ugliest organizational Jewish financial scandal of our time.”

Continuing the Survivors’ Victimhood

Repeated concerns provoked Israeli journalists Guy Meroz and Orli Vilnai-Federbush to create a second film on the Claims Conference entitled “Paying for Justice: the Battle Continues” (2008). They accused the leadership of engaging in an ‘old boys club’ mentality, and “self-dealing” or “misusing one’s own position to benefit one’s private self”.

In response, the Conference denied the claims and tried to prevent the documentary from being screened.

Blumenthal reflected how one possible reason many survivors may not be receiving the assistance owed is that funds are granted to welfare organizations as opposed to individuals. As stated by Leo Rechter, Director of the National Association of Jewish Child Holocaust Survivors, That is like subsidizing the railroads because some survivors sometimes take the subway”. 

A substantial percentage of funding has also been allocated to educational programming. Roman Kent, former Conference treasurer and himself a survivor, said, “Survivors are suffering. Our only priority should be the survivors - everything else should be secondary….[and] the responsibility of [other organizations].”

“20 survivors could have been taken care of with [the] $50,000 [raised during the 2010 concert gala),” admonished Rechter, “and provided with a shred of dignity in their last days.” 

Work Needs to be Done

As stated by one survivor, “I was born during the Holocaust, I suffered in the camps…but the organization which is supposed to care for Holocaust victims and has two billion dollars in its accounts…is not prepared to help me.”

While the Claims Conference organization has indeed accomplished critical work, and is still relevant (it assisted in evacuating Ukrainian survivors to Germany), accountability measures are in order so that Shoah victims can live their lives in honor, comfort, and security. 


[1] Hebrew for the Holocaust.

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