Category Archive: Claims Conference

At international forum on Holocaust restitution, ‘J’accuse’ against Poland

World Jewish Restitution Organization head decries utter lack of compensation in the country that, prior to World War II, 3 million Jews called home

Gideon-965x543Tiny houses in small town Poland are not worth much money. But for many Holocaust survivors whose families once owned those properties, those houses represent something priceless: a small link to family history, and a chance for justice.

That chance is growing slimmer by the year as memories fade, documents are lost, and governments fail to legislate or implement restitution laws.

“We’re soon going to live in a world without Holocaust survivors,” said Gideon Taylor, the chair of operations for the World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO). “In a sense, as we saw the mortality of survivors in front of us, the cases that drive us are these: We meet individuals who can walk and look on a street and point at a house and say, ‘I lived here.’”

Behind every case is an individual, said Taylor, speaking with The Times of Israel in Jerusalem ahead of a historic first gathering of the International Coordination Forum for the Restitution of the Holocaust Era Assets held at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on June 8 and 9.

Passionate about the plight of Holocaust survivors — and the continued injustices presented to them by the countries of their birth — Taylor volunteers his time with WJRO, an umbrella organization that represents world Jewry in pursuing claims for the recovery of Jewish properties seized during the Holocaust in Eastern Europe.

Together with his small professional team and volunteer support fleet of lawyers and diplomats, Taylor raises awareness of the human rights violations perpetrated by many countries through their recalcitrance to address the issue of Holocaust restitution, and lobbies governments to push for fair legislation.

“It’s not about the money. What we’re looking for is fairness, justice, the return of what is taken,” said Taylor in a Irish lilt slightly dulled through his many years in America. “It’s a recognition. Ultimately it’s all symbolic; it’s not bringing back any life or family — what was lost.”

The question of why now is, beyond the aging survivor population, also a function of history. Eastern European countries, locked behind the iron curtain of the Soviet Union until 1991, were shut off from western restitution efforts.

After their transition to democracy, some countries, citing Bulgaria, quickly resolved restitution issues, said Taylor.

‘Ultimately it’s all symbolic; it’s not bringing back any life or family — what was lost’

Early after the fall of Communism, Bulgaria addressed private and community property — often returning actual property, and created a generally comprehensive restitution program,” he said.

On the completely other side of spectrum, however, is Poland.

“Virtually all other countries in Eastern Europe have some kind of legislation or fund [for Holocaust survivors]. In Poland there have been a series of attempts, but they have never been brought before the government and passed,” said Taylor.

Home to three million Jews before World War II, Poland, which ironically launched the much acclaimed POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, has not properly addressed its role in the confiscation of property during the Nazi occupation and Communist regime, said Taylor.

“It’s about the history — how people are perceived, what’s said. They [the Poles] regard themselves as a victim country. And there were huge horrors reaped on Poland, where many non-Jews perished as well as Jews. But it’s simply a matter of this is property that belonged to an individual,” he said, regardless of the individual’s faith. “Any country that is moving forward — before looking to the future, has to address the past.”

It is a past that is deeply affecting the present. Today, a significant portion of Holocaust survivors live under the poverty line. Many European Jewish communities support their elderly through monies gained through the restitution of Jewish communal properties. Jews from Poland do not have this option.

‘This is not a Jewish issue, this is a Polish issue’

“We talk to Polish officials and tell them, ‘This is part of the Jewish history — the glorious part and the painful parts.’ It is important for the relationship between Poland and Jews, for its role as a modern democratic society, that they do not address just parts of the history, but the entirety of the Polish Jewish experience,” said Taylor.

WJRO sees WWII restitution as a human rights issue, not a purely Jewish concern, and works closely with parallel non-Jewish organizations.

“The issue tends to get regarded, wrongly, as a Jewish issue. This is not a Jewish issue, this is a Polish issue,” said Taylor.

As such, WJRO attempts to rally governments to its cause and this week’s forum is a new international effort. It was sponsored by the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry for Social Equality, included special envoys and representatives for Holocaust-related issues from various countries. In addition to Taylor, there were representatives from the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, and the European Shoah Legacy Institute (ESLI), as well as diplomats from EU countries, the United States and others.

‘The international community is not doing enough to address the legacy of the Holocaust’

After the closing session on Thursday, the forum issued a statement saying, “We are witnessing today an unprecedented growth of anti-Semitism, Holocaust denial, racism and xenophobia in Europe, while the international community is not doing enough to address the legacy of the Holocaust and with the issue of restitution of or compensation for confiscated goods, rights and property from Holocaust era (1933-1945) and its aftermath.”

The forum commended the “recent positive developments on the restitution of property in Serbia, Romania and Latvia and encouraged these states and others to continue to make progress on restitution.” It also moved to, among other subsections, “promote the legacy of the Holocaust (Shoah), restitution and compensation regarding immovable property, art, Judaica and other cultural assets looted during the Holocaust era and its aftermath within the European Union agenda and public opinion.”

And herein lies the essence of the problem: with no sanctions to enforce or strong political pressure, organizations such as WJRO can “promote” or “commend” a country’s good will. Taylor acknowledged the difficulty, saying “it’s a moral case.”

But with major victories in the three countries in 2016 alone, perhaps that may be enough. “There is a momentum, an awareness,” said Taylor.

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Berman: Claims Conference staff unaware of fraud

Claims Conference chairman Julius Berman continued to deny having any knowledge of fraud being conducted within his organization prior to 2009 – only hours before JTA reported on Wednesday that he and other senior executives had launched a probe into the matter in 2001.
According to documents obtained by JTA, Berman’s law firm, Kaye Scholer LLP, launched a 2001 probe that failed to expose the ongoing theft on the orders of Berman and then-executive vice president Gideon Taylor. Speaking during an exclusive interview with The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday morning, Berman said that “neither the board nor the chairman of the board, nor anybody around the board, including the senior staff, was aware of it in 2009.”
He also praised the Claims Conference for how it handled the matter of the fraud once it was exposed, saying the US Attorney’s Office “went out of the way, which was unusual for the US Attorney, to thank us for our cooperation.”
Berman’s statement is consistent with the conference’s official narrative, in which Karl Brozik, then the organization’s director in Germany, led an investigation into allegations that New York-based conference employee Semyon Domnitser had approved five fraudulent restitution claims. Brozik subsequently closed the investigation.
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Claims Conference Chief Knew of $57M Holocaust Fraud Probe Earlier

Contrary to his earlier claims, one of American Jewry’s most prominent leaders was warned about a serious Holocaust compensation scam more than eight years before the fraud became public.
Julius Berman, who is chairman of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, then directed his own inquiry into the fraud allegations but failed to act on the fraud taking place. He also kept news about the allegations and his actions from his fellow board members at the Claims Conference, where the fraud was occurring.
Documents obtained by the Forward show that Berman, the Claims Conference’s top lay leader, personally directed an early investigation into the fraud at the organization, which processes restitution claims for Holocaust survivors. The fraud ultimately netted its participants $57 million in German government funds meant for needy survivors.
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EXCLUSIVE: Top Claims Conference officials carried out own botched probe of 2001 fraud

A document obtained by JTA shows that top officials of the Claims Conference were sufficiently concerned by allegations of fraudulent restitution claims that they launched their own probe in 2001, nearly eight years before the $57 million scheme was finally detected.
The Claims Conference has said in recent days that failure to heed early warnings of the fraud lies with a now-dead regional director. But the new document shows that two senior officials — the organization’s chief professional at the time, Gideon Taylor, and its counsel, Julius Berman — conducted their own investigation, which failed to uncover the extent of the scheme.
The probe resulted in an eight-page report that raised questions about the handling of several fraudulent cases by Semen Domnitser, a Claims Conference employee who was found guilty on May 8 of orchestrating the $57 million scheme.
The revelation of the report leaves unanswered the question of whether Claims Conference leaders showed gross negligence in failing to detect that Domnitser was orchestrating a widespread fraud, as some critics contend, or whether Domnitser, who was questioned in the two 2001 probes, was such a shrewd operator that Claims Conference officials couldn’t help but be fooled.
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Claims Conference Plans To Respond on Botched Probe Into $57M Holocaust Fraud

Amid calls that the Claims Conference bungled a warning in 2001 about fraud within the organization, conference leaders appointed a committee to “formulate an appropriate course of action.”
The move, announced by board chairman Julius Berman in an email to board members on Sunday, followed an announcement by the World Jewish Congress that it was setting up its own task force to look into allegations of a cover-up by the Claims Conference.
The allegations concern the Forward’s revelation that an anonymous letter sent to the Claims Conference’s Frankfurt office in 2001 that identified five cases in which restitution was approved for ineligible claimants. The letter reached the organization’s then-director in Germany, Karl Brozik, who queried Semen Domnitser, the official in New York who approved the cases and who was found guilty two weeks ago of spearheading the $57 million fraud scheme that run unimpeded at the Claims Conference from 1993 to 2009.
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WJC to probe ‘Claims Conference fraud cover-up’

World Jewish Congress president Ronald S. Lauder has asked Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany chairman Julius Berman and executive vice president Gregory Schneider to respond to allegations of covering up fraud, according to The Jerusalem Post.
According to the allegations, senior conference executives covered up a 2001 communiqué exposing ongoing fraud within their organization that ultimately cost $57 million.
Both Lauder and WJC secretary- general Michael Schneider sit on the board of directors of the Claims Conference, which works to secure restitution from the German government for Holocaust survivors. Lauder made the request in a letter to Berman and Schneider on Friday.
In another private letter provided to the Post by someone familiar with the matter, Lauder again referred to allegations of a cover-up, calling them a “long-term issue with potentially serious implications” before announcing that a task force was being formed by WJC CEO Robert Singer to “deal with and follow through on this and related issues.”
The task force, Lauder wrote, is to be chaired by Michael Schneider and include WJC general counsel Menachem Rosensaft.
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Employee found guilty of $57 million Shoah restitution fraud

Claims Conference worker and ringleader Semen Domnister and dozens others falsified applications for German funds

NEW YORK– Semen Domnitser, the former Claims Conference employee who was charged with leading a $57 million fraud scheme at the Holocaust restitution organization, was found guilty. Domnitser and two others, Oksana Romalis and Luba Kramrish, were found guilty on all counts Wednesday by a US District Court jury in Manhattan. Their trial lasted four weeks.
Twenty-eight others charged in the fraud scheme had pleaded guilty.
“To have it all come to closure is extraordinarily important,” Greg Schneider, the executive vice president of the Claims Conference, told JTA. “We’re obviously very happy that justice has been served, but focus on the needs of Holocaust survivors has always been our main priority.”
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GERMANY AND CLAIMS CONFERENCE AGREE ON CONTINUED PAYMENTS, HOMECARE FOR HOLOCAUST SURVIVORS TO MARK 60 YEARS OF COMPENSATION AGREEMENTS

Minister of Finance Hosts Ceremony to Commemorate 60th Anniversary of Luxembourg Agreements
The government of Germany has committed, through an agreement signed with the Claims Conference, to continue compensation payments to eligible Holocaust survivors and providing funding for homecare for elderly victims.
At the ceremony in Berlin, German Minister of Finance Wolfgang Schäuble hosted a ceremony at which an agreement was signed that will continue to govern the Claims Conference’s compensation programs and the provision of homecare funding by the German government.
These agreements come 60 years after the historic first agreements were signed in September 1952 that pledged West Germany to providing payments for certain Jewish survivors of the Holocaust. Those first agreements, called the Luxembourg Agreements, have been followed in the ensuing decades with numerous other funds and programs to provide payments and assistance to Holocaust victims, established through ongoing negotiations between the Claims Conference and the government of Germany.
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