Lawyers for survivors claim in complaint that group shortchanging heirs on property.
New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has been asked to compel the Claims Conference to compensate perhaps thousands of families for the property they lost to the Nazis.
In a complaint sent by overnight mail Monday to Schneiderman’s office, Manhattan attorney David Rowland argued that the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, also known as the Claims Conference, was improperly disposing of the unclaimed German property.
A spokeswoman for the Claims Conference said, “From prior contact, we are aware of the complaint. While it has no merit, we do not intend to litigate such matters in the press.
We will fully cooperate with the Attorney General, and it would be Inappropriate to comment further at this time.”
The attorney general’s office oversees not-for-profit organizations based in New York.
In an interview with The Jewish Week Wednesday afternoon, Rowland explained that Nazi victims or their heirs had until the end of 1992 to file claims with the German government to get back real estate seized by the Nazis. The date for filing claims for movable property was June 30, 1993. Any unclaimed property was given to the Claims Conference as the legal successor organization under the German Property Law.
In all, Rowland said, the Claims Conference received more than $3 billion from the sale of that unclaimed property. It later established a Goodwill Fund to pay Nazi victims or their heirs who contacted it to say they had missed the German deadline. It paid them a total of 80 percent of the value of their property. By the time the fund closed in March 2004, it had paid out about $1 billion.
Rowland said he is one of several lawyers in Europe and Israel who formed a Claimants Representative Committee to represent Nazi victims or heirs who missed both the German and Claims Conference deadlines. He said the group has been negotiating with the Claims Conference for the last two years to convince it to reopen the Goodwill Fund.
“They refused, saying they need the money to pay for homecare for Holocaust survivors, and that this is their No. 1 priority,” Rowland said.
He said the lawyers then went to the German government to complain.
“We said you can’t use victims’ money for homecare, that it is Germany’s responsibility,” Rowland recalled.
He said the lawyers believe that discussion played a role in Germany’s decision earlier this year to pay $1 billion until 2017 for Nazi victims’ homecare.
Rowland said that as a result of their negotiations, the Claims Conference agreed to start a Late Applicants Fund but to cap the amount to be returned. The lawyers agreed and proposed setting the cap at $300 million. The Claims Conference said that was too high and set it at 50 million euros ($67 million).
“You have to apply by the end of 2014,” Rowland said. “The problem is that if you have a claimant with $1 million claim, under the rules they would initially get only 5 percent or $67,000. If there was money left over after everyone had been paid, the Claims Conference would use that to pay the heirs more money in proportion to the value of their property.”
But, he added, claimants would first have to sign a waiver to get the $67,000 without knowing whether they would receive more money.
“We don’t know if anyone has filed a claim, but we are telling our clients not to sign,” he said.
In their complaint to Schneiderman, the lawyers cited a recent decision of a German federal court that held that the Claims Conference was simply acting as a trustee for the Nazi victims. (The Jewish Week reported on the ruling this past summer.) In its decision, it wrote that the Claims Conference “is only entitled [to act] in its capacity as a trustee on behalf of Jews who were actually persecuted by the Nazis and their heirs...”
“Based on a legal succession fiction, the law intended to endow the [Claims Conference] only with a temporary eligibility in order to prevent a situation in which the German government would become an heir (of a Nazi victim).”
Thus, the lawyers wrote in their complaint, “the Claims Conference is a trustee for Nazi victims, or their heirs, and has a fiduciary duty to pay to the Nazi victims, or to their heirs, the property which they owned and lost due to Nazi persecution.
“We therefore request the Attorney General of the State of New York to investigate this matter and take all necessary steps in law or otherwise to enforce our clients rights to obtain back from the Claims Conference this property which was lost due to Nazi persecution and which the Claims Conference now holds and refuses to fairly and adequately return to its equitable owners, our clients, the heirs of the Nazi victims who lost it.”
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