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What’s next for Claims Conference: Shoah education or shutdown?

by uriel heilman , jta

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The Claims Conference should shift its long-term focus to Holocaust education and remembrance, according to a panel tasked with examining the organization’s governance and strategic vision.

The panel was appointed last year following a scandal involving the Claims Conference’s failure to detect a $57 million fraud scheme that persisted until 2009. 

Claims Conference representatives meet with German officials during Holocaust  restitution negotiations in Israel in 2013.  jta/claims conference
Claims Conference representatives meet with German officials during Holocaust restitution negotiations in Israel in 2013. jta/claims conference
The new recommendations, outlined in two hefty documents sent to Claims Conference board members over the last two weeks, will go to a vote at the board’s annual meeting in New York on July 8.

Consisting of board members and outside experts and guided by Accenture consultants, the special panel was charged with reviewing the administration, management and governance structure of the Claims Conference, which obtains Holocaust restitution and compensation from Germany and Austria. The central question the panel examined was what the Claims Conference should do after the last of the survivors dies.

The panel considered several possible courses of action: shutting down; funding education and remembrance projects; or shifting its focus to general Jewish educational programming, helping victims of other genocides or preserving Jewish cultural sites in the former Soviet Union.

Given the Claims Conference’s successes at convincing Germany to increase its funding for survivors, the panel concluded that “to close down without attempting to leverage its position and significant experience in the service of Holocaust education and remembrance would be to miss a major opportunity.”

The Claims Conference’s chief executive, Greg Schneider, emphasized that Holocaust education isn’t a new direction: The organization currently funds education and remembrance to the tune of $18 million per year with money obtained from the sale of unclaimed Jewish properties in the former East Germany.

“The Claims Conference has always dealt with the consequences of the Shoah,” Schneider said of the board’s mandate for the organization. “Educating people about the Shoah and confronting Holocaust denial [both] deal with consequences of the Shoah. To be faithful to our mandate, we should continue to do that.”

The new vision for the Claims Conference hinges on the organization’s ability to get material support for it from the perpetrators of the Holocaust — namely Germany, but also Austria and companies complicit in the Nazi genocide. If that funding cannot be secured, the Claims Conference should go out of business once there are no survivors left, Schneider said.

Though survivors are dying, their overall need for aid actually is rising because of their growing infirmity and relative poverty. The Claims Conference estimates that survivor needs will peak in about two or three years, followed by a progressive decline.

Globally there are an estimated 500,000 living Nazi victims — a category that includes not just survivors of concentration camps, ghettos and slave labor camps but also those forced to flee the Nazi onslaught, compelled to go into hiding or who endured certain others forms of persecution.

Established in 1951 to secure compensation and restitution from Germany, the Claims Conference has negotiated successfully for an estimated $70 billion for survivors and survivor needs over the course of its existence.

Most of that money has come directly from Germany in the form of pensions and compensation payments, with the Claims Conference acting only as the processor of payments and verifier of claims (this latter area is where the $57 million fraud occurred). As each survivor dies, these payments cease.

The Claims Conference also has a bucket of discretionary funding: billions generated from the sale of heirless Jewish property from the former East Germany. But that is expected to run dry by 2020.

In 2004, the Claims Conference managed to get Germany to fund a new area: home care for survivors, including food, transportation and medical care. If the board adopts the new plan next month, the question for negotiators is whether they’ll be able to get Germany to move into another new area — one that, unlike aid to aging survivors, has no particular expiration date.



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