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WANTED: OVERSIGHT Print E-mail
By Jay Bushinsky
July 19, 2007

JERUSALEM -- Few of the German Jews or their heirs whose property in what became East Germany was seized by the Nazis in the 1930's and nationalized by the Communists in the 1950's have been able to retrieve it or receive adequate monetary restitution.
 
The Berlin government's bureaucracy and the stern policies of the Jewish Conference on Material Claims Against Germany have alternately rejected their claims, reduced the relevant real estate assessments or denied their applications altogether because of strict deadlines set immediately after the pro-Soviet German Democratic Republic's collapse 17 years ago.

In statistical terms, the situation is transparent.  Approximately 150,000 Jews lived in the area that became the GDR after World War II.  They constituted a third of Germany's pre-war Jewish population in 1933, when Adolf Hitler came to power.
 
By March, 2007, 120,373 claims had been filed according to the Claims Conference. Of these, only 11,539 were approved by the German authorities by then.  The Claims Conference deducts and retains 20 per cent of each restitution payment.
 
A case in point: Mrs. Gabriele Hammerstein, who emigrated to the U.S. after leaving the historic city of Schwerin which is situated on the north German plain, described her property there as "a castle," adding heatedly, "I was disinherited!"
 
Interviewed in New York where she lives today, Mrs. Hammerstein said, "the German government and the Claims Conference tried to sell it over my head."  She is willing to invest two million dollars "to restore the property" after which she expects it to be worth between eight and 10 million dollars.  
 
She noted that the castle was built by the Grand Duke of Mecklenberg, the principality into which Schwerin was incorporated several centuries ago.  Her claim was scheduled to be considered in a U.S. court this month.  Schwerin has a history of rampant anti-Semitism that persisted from the time Jews first settled there 700 years ago until the late 19th century when German Jews were granted equality and civil rights.
 
Although her property is of a much greater magnitude in monetary terms than most others caught up in the three-side triangle composed of Germany's federal government, the Claims Conference and the private owners, it  highlights the difference between the former east German Jews' experience and that of their co-religionists with roots in pre-1990 west Germany.
 
Avraham Kaufman, who immigrated to Israel from the U.S. 20 years ago, did win restitution for the real estate that his wife's family owned in East Berlin (formerly the GDR's capital), but barely.  

"Our main problem was with the German lawyers," he said.  He also criticized the Claims Conference for giving him "a hard time."
 
Kaufman said the original offer made by the lawyers and the Claims Conference (the latter keeps 20 per cent of every restitution payment) provided only 20 per cent of the property's value.

"When I threatened to take my story to the news media, they increased their offer to 75 per cent, but in the end I had to give them most of the money and had very little left to share with all the relatives who were entitled to it." he said.
 
Unlike the former Bonn government, which signed a reparations treaty with the State of Israel (for heirless Jewish property to which Israel was the only eligible claimant) and the Claims Conference (on behalf of the Jews who survived the Nazi Holocaust), and allocated billions of dollars in restitution, the former communist regime refused to pay any compensation for property stolen by the Nazis and nationalized by the communists.  The GDR barred restitution to non-Jews as well as Jews.
 
In the GDR's final days, its leaders indicated publicly that they had a change of heart, but there were no negotiations or initial payments.  The Claims Conference's former president, Rabbi Israel Singer, made several discreet approaches to the East Germans in the 1970's, according to Netty C. Gross, an Israeli journalist who specializes in the Holocaust's aftermath, "but nothing came of them."
 
When Germany was reunited in 1990, the federal government immediately enacted a law authorizing compensation for property in the former GDR.  Applications could be filed regardless of the claimants' religion or nationality. It recognized the Claims Conference as the Jewish claimants' sole representative.  Gross said this included movable as well as immovable property -- homes, factories, paintings and Judaica.  "The German government did not want to get involved in the nitty gritty, though," she went on.  It let the Claims Conference determine the real estate valuations, she went on.
 
Eventually, a formula was worked out whereby claimants could receive 80 per cent of the valuation and the Claims Conference would retain 20 per cent (for services rendered). The Claims Conference's New York-based spokesperson, Hillary Kessler-Godin, said "properties that are recovered are sold on the open market" and that claimants are informed of all the details relevant to sales and "compensation awarded by the German government." Beyond the individual realm, the Claims Conference also won recognition as the bona fide claimant to property left behind by "dissolved Jewish communities," Kessler-Godin said.
 
She told of a series of deadline extensions sought and obtained by it from the German government -- from Dec. 31, 1992, to June 30, 1993, to March 31, 2004 (for claimants under the Goodwill Fund set up for those who did not meet the previous deadlines), to Dec. 31, 1998 (also for claimants in that category).
 
"In September, 2003, the Claims Conference published a list, to the extent available, of names of original owners of assets that were located in the former East Germany recovered by the Claims Conference or which related to such assets for which claims by the Claims Conference were still pending under the German Property Restitution Law..." Kessler-Godin said.

"...When it published this list the Claims Conference announced in a major advertising and media campaign that the final deadline for applications to the Goodwill Fund was March 31, 2004."
 
By Dec. 31, 2006, Kessler-Godin went on, "the Claims Conference has paid approximately 378 million Euro's ($500 million) under the Goodwill Fund.  The Claims Conference has also set aside approximately 104 million Euro's, (approximately $138 million) for future payments from the Goodwill Fund and a further 72 million Euro's (approximately $95 million) has been designated for 'Goodwill Fund and Other Uses.'"
 
She stressed that the Claims Conference does not propose or set any property valuations and that when properties are sold "the award amount is determined by the German government authorities."  Appeals are permitted, she said.
 
Martin Stern, a real estate executive with offices in London and Jerusalem, is one of the most consistent critics of the way in which compensation for Jewish property in the former GDR has been handled. "Out of the 11,000-odd buildings that actually exist, I have not heard of a single instance in which a rightful heir received any of these properties," he said, referring to the right to put them on sale afterward.
 
This was disputed by Daniel Kadden, an American expert in Holocaust survivors' assets. Writing in the July, 2006, edition of "Jewish Currents," Kadden said: "The Claims Conference failed to transfer property in East Germany or provide full compensation payments to the legitimate Jewish owners or heirs of such properties.
 
"It then took title to thousands of buildings and sold those most valuable for cash using the services of a small circle of real estate brokers." Stern, who helped initiate the Holocaust-era insurance policy claims in 1996, said he has been unable to ascertain how much money the Claims Conference received for the sale of such property.
 
Speaking with the expertise he gleaned and provided as an advisor to the Israeli parliamentary committee that investigated the Claims Conference's and government's allocations of funds allocated to Holocaust survivors living in this country, Stern said: "In these circumstances, it is important to know how the sales were made, whether bona fide real estate agents were involved and whether all the properties were sold at their maximum value."  He intimated that they were not.




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