Holocaust survivors protest in front of the Knesset - 2005
Holocaust survivors protesting in front of the Knesset. Photo by Archive
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Natasha Mozgovaya
'Claims Conference' Executive Vice President Greg Schneider with Colette Avital at the Raoul Wallenberg Congressional Gold Medal celebration luncheon. Photo by Natasha Mozgovaya

Three events were held in Washington this week to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Luxembourg Agreement, the historic agreement between the Claims Conference, the State of Israel and West Germany, which agreed to provide payments to Holocaust survivors. One event was held at the Israeli Embassy, another at the Holocaust Memorial Museum, and the last one at the Raoul Wallenberg Congressional Luncheon reception.

The commemorations came in the midst of another restitution agreement: Germany agreed on Monday to provide payments to 80,000 Jewish Nazi victims living in the former Soviet Union who never before received compensation for their suffering during the Holocaust. Each one will get 2,556 euro, most of which will come from the Hardship Fund.

A heavy shadow of corruption

While the Claims Conference is lauding this agreement, the celebrations for it come in the heavy shadow of a corruption scheme that has marred the organization. In 2009, investigators found that over a 17-year period, a group of corrupt insiders from the Claims Conference submitted fraudulent claims, and stole tens of millions of dollars meant to aid survivors.

Several of the accused pleaded guilty, and next January, a group of defendants will stand trial for the crime. The issue is a fairly awkward one for an organization that is dealing with "holy money" - that must now promise a different kind of "never again" - to assure the world that survivors' payments will reach their proper address.

"There are lingering pieces, because the prosecution continues," Claims Conference Executive Vice President Greg Schneider told Haaretz. "There will be a trial in January, and we are still trying to recover some of the money. But the bulk of it is behind us, and it certainly is not our main focus. The main focus of our work is providing home care and additional payments.

"We are getting 80,000 payments to people for the first time, and I am very proud to be part of the historic endeavor that allowed this to happen. It's hard to even wrap your head around the idea of 80,000 people, but I've been to some of their homes, in Bryansk, Minsk, Bobruisk. I understand their needs, and I know that close to 4,000 dollars for each of them can be life altering."

Schneider says that until now, these 80,000 Nazi victims did not qualify for compensation, because West Germany refused to pay people who lived "behind the Iron Curtain, assuming, probably correctly, that the Communist countries would seize the funds, that they would be used against [Germany] in the Cold War, and that survivors wouldn't benefit from them."

But Schneider says it was immoral to exclude those who most needed the financial assistance from restitution plans. He called this new agreement a "huge breakthrough" and "historic."

Schneider said that Germany agreed to make these new payments, despite the fraud scandal at the Claims Conference, because of a commitment it made to compensating Hitler's victims that spans 60 years.

"It relates to over $60 billion paid over the years to survivors living in 87 countries, and goes to the core of the morality of the German people, and what they see as a moral imperative for their country. The fraud is an unfortunate event, but it's a footnote in the long history of this joint endeavor. We are doing everything we can to ensure the full prosecution of those who did it and ensure it will never happen again. We are working very closely with the German government, taking all of the necessary steps. But given the longstanding relationship and its significance [the corruption] is not consequential."

Mission not yet accomplished

When asked if the organization was looking toward a time when it will no longer be needed, when there are no survivors left, Schneider said that at this point, the Claims Conference remains focused on its mission - to provide aid to survivors. "Unfortunately, there are tens of thousands of survivors who still need help every day with medicine, with food, with home care, so our mission is far from complete. We just concluded negotiations that led to a first-ever payment to 80,000 people ... so for us, it's premature to talk about the end."

He said that with the focus on the survivors, it is unclear what the future will hold for the Claims Conference, whether it will eventually try to help second-generation survivors who had difficult childhoods because of their parents' traumas. "What will eventually come in the years ahead, I don't know," he said. "Right now the needs of survivors are tremendous and we are focused on helping to address these needs."

Schneider said that the significance of the Luxembourg Agreement's 60-year anniversary is significant for two reasons. "We see it every day in the life of the survivors that can pay the rent, buy medicine, and also that they feel Germany has acknowledged their suffering; this already has incredible significance and importance.

"Number two, I think the full impact of the moral implications has yet to be fully comprehended. Never before in history has a defeated nation paid compensation to people the way Germany has. This incredible moral example, we hope, will help to deter any atrocities from happening again. But if they do, it provides an incredible moral example of how to reenter the family of nations after this unspeakable crime."

Ethics and efficiency: Political animals on the verge of extinction

If you look at the goings-on in D.C. of late, it appears that ethics and efficiency in politics are animals on the verge of extinction. Or maybe, hopefully, this only seems to be the case because election-year politics are distorting the reality.

Let's talk efficiency: The House of Representatives will vote yet again this week on a bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act, or "Obamacare" as it is known. Republicans are expending efforts to mobilize for the election-season vote, even though they are well aware that the repeal will never pass the Senate, with its Democratic majority.

As for ethics: One specific Senate race took the spotlight this week, when the House Ethics Committee announced its decision to investigate Nevada Congresswoman Shelley Berkley (D ), one of the staunchest Israel supporters in Congress, following allegations that some of her initiatives as a lawmaker benefited her husband's medical practice.

Among Berkley's activities that raised conflict of interest questions was her efforts to prevent closure of the liver transplant center in Nevada. Berkley's husband, Dr. Larry Lehrner, had a contract with the center. Berkley's campaign spokeswoman welcomed the probe, expressing certainty that it will prove that Berkley's only interest was the well-being of Nevada patients.

The investigation, however, is hardly helpful to Berkley's campaign, especially as her Republican rival, Senator Dean Heller, has a slight lead over Berkley in the polls. (44 percent of respondents chose Heller as their candidate, while 43 percent favored Berkley. ) Democrats need this win to keep their majority in the House, since it is one of several contests in which the outcome is far from certain.