Chancellor should intercede in East German claims, lawyers say.
Eva Lipman is asking for German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s help in getting compensation for her grandfather’s Berlin hat factory that had been seized by the Nazis.
The Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, also known as the Claims Conference, was given the compensation – more than $450,000 -- in its capacity as the legal owner of all unclaimed East German property/assets (without which the money would have reverted to Germany). But Lipman said that because she did not know of the factory’s existence until a lawyer told her a few years ago, she should have a right to claim it all. The Claims Conference says that deadline has passed but that she can share in a $68 million Late Applicants Fund that expires Dec. 31.
Lipman’s lawyer, Manhattan attorney David Rowland, said he wrote to Merkel last month asking her to intercede on behalf of a majority of the heirs of Nazi victims who have yet to be compensated for East German property lost to the Nazis.
“We are not sure if you aware that currently Germany has disinherited most of the heirs of Nazi victims from their eastern German property,” he wrote. “The refusal of the Claims Conference to fairly and adequately return this property to the heirs of the victims who lost it is a scandal of the highest level and needs to be remedied immediately.”
Another Manhattan lawyer is also seeking Merkel’s help – this time for the heirs of a Jewish art collector, Max Emden, whose paintings were confiscated by the Nazis. In his Jan. 2 letter, attorney Mel Urbach wrote that the Washington Principles on Nazi-confiscated art that were drafted in 1998 by 44 participating countries – including Germany — were not being followed by Germany.
“Recently, the Ministry of Finance has obstructed the claim on ‘technical grounds’ and will not agree to go to [arbitration] to resolve the matter,” Urbach wrote in a letter signed also by his co-counsel, Markus Stoetzel.
The lawyers suggested that the reason for the ministry’s refusal is that it lost an identical case filed by the heirs of another Jewish art collector.
“The result is that Germany now has an inconsistent restitution policy for identical claims,” the men wrote. “We respectfully request your intercession to remedy this discriminatory miscarriage of justice by simply permitting the Limbach Commission [the arbitration panel] to hear the matter and issue a recommendation. Germany has become the moral compass of Europe, and we ask you to intervene to recalibrate the system and allow a consistent practice to be applied through the Limbach Commission.”
In an interview, Urbach said that as many as 20 million works of art were reportedly stolen by the Nazis. In the 15 years since the Washington Principles, the Limbach Commission has been asked to decide only seven cases -- “and two were mine” – while in Austria 300 cases have gone to arbitration.
“The bulk [of the stolen paintings] are in Germany, that is why those figures are so alarming,” Urbach said. “It ought to shock everybody.”
He noted that of the seven cases heard by Limbach, the arbitrators ruled in favor of the claimants six times; the seventh won later in court.
“The Washington Principles have failed,” Urbach insisted. “There is no clarity in Germany. Its museums, the government and private collectors can use the grey area to escape liability.”
Wesley Fisher, director of research for the Claims Conference, said in an e-mail that his organization is “exploring the matter with the German government.”
“Some aspects require changes in German law, and the Bundestag [German parliament] has begun examining in the question,” he added.
In an e-mail interview, Rowland said his appeal to Merkel stems from the refusal of the Claims Conference to “fairly and adequately return” family assets that had been seized by the Nazis. He noted that he has also written to President Barack Obama to ask that he raise the issue in his discussions with Merkel because Germany’s actions violate treaties and are an “unconstitutional taking of property.”
“The German government gave this property to the Claims Conference but should have required them to return it to the families who lost it,” Rowland said. “ In effect, Germany disinherited the heirs of Nazi victims by giving this property to a third party which refuses to return it to the families who lost it. That is doubly outrageous because governments are not supposed to disinherit their citizens from their property, even more so when they are Nazi victims.”
In his letter to Merkel, Rowland pointed out that the Claims Conference received approximately 2.3 billion euros of unclaimed Jewish property and returned about 700 million euros to the victims or their heirs.
“That means that the Claims Conference is keeping approximately 1.6 billion euros of Nazi victims’ property, which it refuses to return to the heirs of Nazi victims who lost this property,” he argued.
The Claims Conference points out that it has spent more than $1.4 billion on lifesaving assistance to Holocaust survivors in need in more than 40 countries. In addition, about $18 million has gone annually for Holocaust-related education, documentation and research.
“For the past 20 years we have been the primary -- and in many locations the only --provider of vital aid and care for needy Holocaust victims,” said a spokeswoman for the Claims Conference.
This is not the first time Holocaust survivors or their heirs have appealed to Merkel for help. Two years after she assumed office in 2005, David Schaecter, president of the Holocaust Survivors Foundation-USA, wrote asking that she “take a personal responsibility in addressing the pressing challenges” facing tens of thousands of survivors who were living in poverty worldwide. He asked that she create a fund to provide a “dignified level of care and basic services for all Holocaust survivors” and to assign someone to “coordinate” the distribution of those funds.
The request was rejected in a letter signed by Barbara Busch, the person who handled Holocaust compensation. She noted that both the government of Israel and the Claims Conference had long requested such a fund. But she said survivors’ increasing need for care was “not caused by persecution, but by age.” And she noted that Germany gives money to the Claims Conference to care for survivors.
Lipman pointed out that after the war, her father filed a claim with Germany but was told it could not be honored because his father’s property was in what was then Communist East Germany. Germany then gave him a pension. But after German reunification in 1990, Germany failed to notify her father that it had more than $450,000 in compensation waiting for him to claim, she said.
Lipman added that her father died in 1990 and that both of parents had suffered for years from dementia.
“The Claims Conference as far as I am aware made no effort to seek out the whereabouts of genuine claimants who were easily traceable and whose money it was holding,” Lipman said. “I feel that we have been robbed for a second time, but this time by a Jewish charitable organization.”
Judi Hannes of Boynton Beach, Fla., is also seeking to get her inheritance from the Claims Conference. She too said she did not know that her grandmother had been forced by the Nazis in 1938 to sell her multistory apartment building in Berlin.
“I was contacted by a lawyer six years ago and neither my brother nor I knew anything about it,” she said. “It is beyond my wildest imagination that he could find me and the Claims Conference never made an attempt to try.”
The Claims Conference in 1992 announced that the German government had passed legislation to restitute property that had been nationalized by the former East German Communist regime and that real estate claims had to be filed with Germany by the end of the year. The Claims Conference also filed claims with Germany for any and all possible Jewish property to ensure that no Jewish property would revert to Germany. In 1994, it created a Goodwill Fund for those who missed the deadline, giving late claimants 80 percent of the value of their property.
The Goodwill Fund was extended and reopened several times in response to public requests until finally closing in 2004. In 1998 it advertised in 100 newspapers that the fund had been reopened. In 2003, it published the names of 59,198 property owners and asked them to file claims. It published a 193-page list of unclaimed property in 2008, saying it would honor claims in exceptional cases. Last year, it published on its website, www.claimscon.org, both the list of properties and their owners in conjunction with a Late Applicants Fund that set aside $68 million to handle all legitimate outstanding claims. The deadline for applying is Dec. 31, 2014.
Hannes said she was aware of the Claims Conference’s efforts but simply did not believe it pertained to her family. After the lawyer notified her of her grandmother’s apartment building, she said they lost three court cases in Germany seeking compensation.
“I do think the Claims Conference has done some wonderful things, there is no doubt about it,” she said. “But in this particular instance I think they have a moral obligation to surviving children and grandchildren. As long as there are surviving heirs, I believe they have a right to claim their property.”