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Germany

Over 800,000 Former Forced Labourers Compensated

A year after the German foundation to financially compensate Holocaust survivors was set up, 1,5 billion euro ($ 1.48 billion) have been paid to 817,000 claimants world-wide, a representative told DW-WORLD.

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Compensation for Holocaust survivors and former forced labourers has become an important international topic

Mr Kai Henning, of the German Foundation, "Remembering, Responsibility and Future" can hardly keep the pride out of his voice.

Taking stock of his foundation’s work a year after it was established, he told DW-WORLD in an interview, "it’s a success story. Almost half of the claimants who have approached us in this past year, have been compensated".

Almost exactly a year ago, the German government set up the foundation under public law. The aim was to provide financial compensation through seven partner organisations all over the world, to former forced labourers as well as those who suffered injustices during the reign of the National Socialists in Germany.

Together with German corporate companies joined together in the Foundation Initiative of German Industry and the German Federal Government, the project was outfitted with 4 billion euro.

Compensation paid from Poland to the Bahamas

Today 1,5 billion euro ($ 1.48 billion) from the foundation’s compensation fund has been paid to about 817,000 claimants living in over 70 countries from Poland to the Bahamas.

"Of course the number of cases of former forced labourers now living in exotic countries such as the Bahamas, Philippines or Thailand is negligible", says Kai Henning, among other things press spokesman and negotiator of the "Remembering, Responsibility and Future" Foundation.

The bulk of the claims compensated so far come from Poland, he says. More than 327,000 claimants there have received 462 million euro ($ 456.79 million) as compensation. Poland is followed by Ukraine and Belarus in terms of claims compensated.

Usually individual compensation sums are paid by the foundation in two instalments. After the initial painstaking work of verifying the claims, the second instalment is "usually much quicker", says Henning.

He reckons that the German Foundation should complete work of paying out the first instalment with its partner organisations notably in the Czech Republic, Poland and the Conference on Jewish Material Claims against Germany (JCC) by the end of 2002.

Unmanageable flood of claims

But despite the sizeable amount of work that the Foundation has already achieved, the 40-member team at the Foundation’s headquarters in Berlin still faces a daunting task.

It could take up to another three years before all the claimants receive their compensations. "We’re overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of claims we have to deal with – over two million", says Henning.

"Initially we faced the problem of making former forced labourers aware of the existence of our foundation, especially to people living in remote villages places such as the republics of the former Soviet Union. But we’re confident that we’ve reached almost everybody".

Verifying credibility of claims a laborious task

But now the Foundation faces another problem of verifying the credibility of the claims that it receives.

"We did receive some easy cases in the early stage, where former forced labourers had the necessary documentation or identity cards to prove their status during the National Socialist years. But it’s becoming increasingly difficult as claimants, not just forced labourers, but even Jews whose insurance policies were not paid during the Nazi years, now want to claim compensation without any kind of papers", says Henning.

The problem is compounded by the fact that people in the former Soviet Union for example, were forced to destroy their insurance policies or identification in Communist times for fear of being termed "collaborators" of the Nazis.

At the same time Henning says that the "law provides a broad spectrum of what can be accepted as proof of one’s status during the Third Reich". Apart from official documentation, even letters and witnesses are accepted as proof.

On the downside, processing the claims takes even longer.

Tracking down people in communal and company archives is a painstaking job. The Foundation is helped in this by the International Search Service (ISD) in Bad Arolsen in the German state of Hessen, and a newly-opened branch office in Cologne.

Henning also says that a 40-member team is just not enough for a task on such a mammoth scale.

Slow but reliable

Kai Henning also believes that general public reaction in Germany towards the work done by the Foundation has been largely positive . "We’ve received over 10 million euro ($ 9.88 million) from private individuals in Germany alone", he says.

To frequent criticism of the Foundation working too slowly, Henning says, "people say that we should work quickly, but at the same time we have to be careful. We need to verify claims thoroughly, or we’d be accused of squandering money on false claims. We need to find a good balance".