Compensation sent to 1.7 million; some claim it was too little, too late, others are grateful

Associated Press

WARSAW, POLAND — During Germany’s World War II occupation of Poland, Jerzy Kowalewski paid a heavy price for helping the resistance.

The Nazis knocked out all of his teeth, then packed him in a cattle car to the Auschwitz concentration camp, where they ordered him to clean streets in 15-hour shifts and turned him into a human guinea pig in sadistic medical experiments.

Six decades later, the 83-year-old Kowalewski gained a small measure of compensation for that suffering — about $20,000 — from a German fund set up to help survivors of the Nazis’ forced labor program. After compensating nearly 1.7 million people in recent years, the fund is sending out its last checks to meet a Sunday deadline to finish its work.

“This isn’t just about money,” said Guenter Saathoff, director of the Remembrance, Responsibility and Future foundation, the fund administrator. “It’s much more about morality.”

Whether the payments brought the victims any solace is another question.

Interviews with survivors throughout eastern Europe suggest the money met with gratitude, but also with bitterness as being too little, too late. And even with enduring rage.

“The Nazis burned my relatives to death before my eyes,” said Markiyan Dimidov, a Ukrainian whose grandmother, great-grandmother, 3-year-old sister and 2-year-old cousin were immolated by the Nazis in 1943 in what is now Belarus. “Our tragedy cannot be compensated by any money.”

The fund was endowed with $6.7 billion, half coming from the government and the other half from companies that profited from forced labor during the war, among them Volkswagen, DaimlerChrysler, Bayer and Deutsche Bank.

German lawmakers approved the fund in 2001 following two years of intricate negotiations and months of legal wrangling over the dismissal of U.S. lawsuits against some of the German companies.

“This money helped me a lot — without it I could have just died,” said Yakov Sivakov, 75, of Belarus, who used half his money on cancer treatment. The rest went to fix his house.