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Wednesday, 26 January, 2000, 19:17 GMT
The long fight for Holocaust compensation

Memories of past suffering remain painful

More than half a century after the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps at the end of World War II, the survivors' battle for compensation continues.

As time wears on the number of those survivors is steadily diminishing, but a number of groups, most of them Jewish, are determined that the lessons of history will not be forgotten.

For many the issue is one of reparations and unfinished business. They have the backing of the influential Jewish lobby in the US who have the money and the voice to ensure the issue does not fade.

Click here for a chart of recent major compensation claims

Others, however, question the principles behind putting trying to put a price on the atrocities of the past and fear the impact that competing legions of lawyers will have on their case.

Mass murder

In Nazi Germany and the countries it occupied huge swathes of the population had their property and wealth confiscated as they were forced from their homes.

Millions ended up in the concentration camps that became the instruments of clinical mass murder. Others were forced into slave labour for the massive German industrial corporations.

Those who died, either through overwork or execution, would even have the gold removed from their teeth.

Survivors of the concentration camps are gradually dying out
In December last year a conglomerate of German companies and the German Government finally reached agreement on the basis for a $5.5bn dollar compensation fund for victims of the slave labour programmes.

It has already run into difficulties. German industry has proved unable to pay for its side of the deal and the German Government is seeking to deduct from the agreed sum money it has already paid to some victims.

Lawyers for the survivors are warning that the hard-won agreement could yet break down.

Legal disputes

The compensation deal was the latest in a series of claims brought by Holocaust survivors or the families of victims in recent years.

Nazi gold reserves were the result of systematic confiscation
Some have reached settlement but many more remain mired in legal disputes and arguments over future liability.

The ending of the Cold War played a key role in bringing some of these cases to fruition.

Wartime archives, once secret and closed, have revealed details of corporate complicity with the Nazi regime. Nazi archives taken from Berlin to Moscow by Russian soldiers provided a particularly rich source of information.

In one case research led by the former Chairman of the US Federal Reserve, Paul Volcker, managed to shed light on the secretive world of Swiss banking, revealing thousands of dormant accounts traceable to victims of the Nazis.

Volker's report and others suggest that tens of billions of dollars in cash and gold was funnelled into neutral Switzerland as a result of the Nazi purges.

Another case - still pending - implicates some of biggest names in European insurance, accused of diverting the policies of Nazi victims into the regime's coffers.

Paying the price

Campaigners say restitution helps acknowledge the reality of past suffering
But as well as claims for the return of material possessions, stolen and looted in the name of Nazi Germany, there is also an emphasis on the need for some sort of moral restitution to be paid on the part of those involved.

How to quantify this in financial terms is a difficult question and some fear that the reality of past suffering will be obscured by talk of dollars and deutschmarks.

Money itself cannot bring back the dead, nor can it erase the memory of years of forced labour, but those seeking compensation say it may be the best system there is.

This is particularly pertinent for a generation that has little direct memory of the holocaust.

Making some sort of financial reparation, they argue, is akin to acknowledging the horrors of the past and the responsibility of the present generation for ensuring that it does not happen again.

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See also:
14 Dec 99 |  Europe
$5bn Nazi slave fund agreed
15 Dec 99 |  Europe
Nazi slave cash dismissed as 'gesture'
16 Nov 99 |  UK
Enslaved by the Nazis
18 Aug 99 |  Europe
Ford 'used slave labour' from Auschwitz
04 Nov 99 |  Americas
US ponders Nazi slave compensation
25 Jan 00 |  Europe
Holocaust forum seeks lessons from history

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