New Israeli documentary maintains Claims Conference is misusing funds meant for Holocaust survivors. ‘Claims Conference is finishing off what Hitler didn’t,’ one survivor says
Ines Ehrlich Published: 05.01.08, 10:30 / Israel Culture
The chilling documentary, “Musar Shilumin (The Morals of Restitution) – the fight goes on,” was premiered Sunday night at Tel Aviv’s Beit Zionei America (ZOA) and then on nationwide TV Wednesday to coincide with Holocaust Memorial Day.
This documentary, a sequel to last year’s expose on the same subject, unfolded the intricate ties between Jewish organizations operating overseas and The Claims Conference, which is allegedly misusing Nazi plundered restitution funds intended for Holocaust survivors.
The in-depth research conducted by Israel’s best known docu-activists – Orly Vilnai Federbush and Guy Meroz, took the team to Europe, the US and Russia on a year-long hunt for justice. It is a courageous attempt to change the way The Claims Conference distributes funds so that the 250,000 Holocaust survivors still living in Israel today – 80,000 of whom live in dire poverty – can finally receive the compensation they are entitled to.
The film has created quite a stir and both Israeli and American parties tried preventing the film from being shown Wednesday night. The Claims Conference dispatched a harsh letter to the TV franchiser and the Shamaim film production company on Sunday stating that the information presented in the documentary is grossly distorted.
Noam Lanir, a high-tech entrepreneur who has been active in supporting the plight of Holocaust survivors and who financed the filming of the second documentary, is demanding his money back. Otherwise, he says, he will sue. Lanir says the Claims Conference transfers $50 million a year to Holocaust survivors and that such a distorted representation of the facts could deal a mortal blow to the aid coming from Germany.
The documentary, on the other hand, maintains that the Claims Conference has much to hide and that it fears being closed down after it has completed its job – namely after it has distributed the funds it controls to the last remaining survivors.
No effort to find rightful owners
The US-based Claims Conference is responsible for recovering and distributing Jewish assets plundered by the Nazis during World War II.
According to the documentary, however, The Claims Conference is withholding sums totaling some $900 million while Israel’s remaining Holocaust survivors live in impoverished conditions, unable to pay for basic necessities such as medication or food. As one survivor put it “what Hitler didn’t finish off the Claims Conference will.”
The documentary revealed that vast sums are allocated to religious institutions for various purposes such as education, research, and documentation of the Shoah, instead of being transferred directly to needy survivors. Both the Claims Conference and the “benefactors” use the funds as they see fit, thus creating what the film describes as an international network of dependent and indebted organizations.
Clearly all parties involved have a strong interest in keeping the organization functioning in this manner. Ironically, Claims Conference funds were used to build an old age pensioners’ home in Israel, yet it did not provide any benefits to Holocaust survivors who are expected to pay the full sum for its services – minus a humiliating 5%. When survivors or their successors apply for restitution 60% of applications are turned down on the pretext of “not meeting the required criteria for restitution.”
In one case featured in the film an official letter sent to a Holocaust survivor and signed by The Claims Conference noted that if the claimant would not be willing to give up 50% of his lawful property he would get none at all.
Attempts at interviewing officials at The Claims Conference were shunned, and the list of eligible Jewish property owners was kept under tight wraps and strictly away from the cameras. The organization, it appears, is perpetuating its existence as a powerful and wealthy organization operating in total contradiction of its raison d’être.
30 survivors die every day
The humiliation, pain and suffering that the Claims Conference’s conduct has inflicted on the remaining survivors, according to the movie, are undoubtedly speeding up their demise. Thirty survivors die every day.
Following the screening of the first documentary last year, a small percentage of eligible survivors received reparations. The sordid subject had successfully been brought to the fore and a flurry of political talk was instigated, but a much lesser extent of action was taken. Time is crucial in this ongoing fight to reclaim what is rightfully theirs.
The two docu-acitivists were left with no choice and have filed a lawsuit against the Claims Conference with the American attorney general’s office on charges of self-dealing. It will take a few months for a decision of whether to sue the organization or not will be made. Meanwhile, more survivors are dying.
The film ends with a sick and elderly survivor closing her door as the camera team leaves. She says she is now left to weep with the memories and the hunger, “tell everyone out there what we are going through,” she pleads as the door behind her shuts and the screen goes black.