NEW YORK - American Jewish leaders have launched a new campaign aimed at pressuring Eastern European countries to live up to their promises to compensate Holocaust survivors and to return stolen property to the families of those who perished at the hands of the Nazis.

One Jewish leader described the campaign as "a final offensive" to get these countries, most of which are former members of the Soviet bloc, to give top priority to the problem.

"These countries have avoided living up to their promises with a whole range of excuses and some governments have even dismissed our repeated attempts to get them to act," said Dr. Israel Singer, chairman of the World Jewish Congress. According to Singer, the issue has never been more urgent, with the number of Holocaust survivors dwindling by the day. The opening salvo of the new campaign was a series of meetings this week in New York between Jewish leaders and foreign ministers and senior diplomats from the 11 countries on the Jewish organizations' list.

Singer, who was closely involved in negotiations with the German government over compensation for forced laborers and with Swiss banks that held dormant accounts belonging to Jewish families killed in the Holocaust, headed the Jewish team at these meetings.

"We asked the foreign ministers to ensure that the issues of compensation and confiscated property are once again made a priority in their country," said Singer yesterday. "They have a moral and legal obligation to fulfill their promises."

Among the countries appearing on the list are Poland, Romania, Hungary, Ukraine, Slovakia, Lithuania and Belarus.

Austria to start payments in December

In Austria, meanwhile, a decision yesterday by parliament's constitutional committee could allow restitution payments to Jewish victims of Nazi theft to finally begin in December, after years of delay.

Up till now, the law said that all 18,000 applications had to be processed first before any of the money in a $210 million fund could be paid out.

But now, said reports, the constitutional committee was creating the conditions for advance payments to be made to victims in the near future. The full parliament is due to pass the relevant law next Wednesday.

However, another condition had not yet been fulfilled - Austrian immunity from class-action court cases claiming restitution for Nazi "aryanization" (theft) of property.

In the United States, one last case is in progress, the Whiteman case in New York being handled by attorney Jay R. Fialkoff. The lawyer recently said, however, that he was thinking of withdrawing the case.

Meanwhile, the newspaper Der Standard in Vienna reported yesterday how the elderly victims of the Nazi thefts in 1938 or afterward were still waiting, with an average of two more dying each day.

About 3,400 had died in the four and a half years since the "Washington Agreement" in January, 2001 between Austria, the United States, lawyers and representatives of victims' organizations.

The $210 million fund was set up at the time, with a prospective of 80 percent contributions by private firms and 20 percent by the Republic of Austria.

In May this year, an agreement was reached between the Austrian government and the Austrian Jewish community on 18.2 million euros in restitution to the community for its property seized by the Nazis. The community in return withdrew 770 individual claims and pressed for an end to the Whiteman case.

Hans Winkler, who prepared the Washington Agreement and is now Austrian state secretary for Europe, conceded that not only the Whiteman case could be blamed for delaying matters. The Austrian side had underestimated the huge administrative task of the fund.

Fialkoff accused Austria, in an interview in the paper, of deliberate delays. Austria's insistence that the Whiteman case be dropped was only "one excuse in a long line of excuses."

He pointed out that people of a very advanced age were waiting for their restitution, and some had died in the meantime.