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Germany: Catholics Offer Compensation to Forced Laborers

  • Roland Eggleston

Germany's Catholic church has decided to provide compensation to forced laborers -- most of them from central and eastern Europe -- who worked in Catholic institutions during the Nazi dictatorship. RFE/RL correspondent Roland Eggleston reports from Munich.

Munich, 30 August 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The chairman of the German Catholic Bishops Conference, Karl Lehmann, says the bishops have agreed unanimously to contribute $4.6 million (10 million German marks) to redress the injustices suffered by the forced laborers.

The Catholic church estimates that about 5,000 men and women were forced to work in its institutions during World War Two. Most came from conquered territory in eastern and central Europe. According to the Church, the majority worked on farms owned by monasteries and convents, helping to maintain the country's food supply. Others worked in church-run hospitals.

In a statement yesterday, Bishop Lehmann emphasized that the fate of those who worked for the church was a good deal less harsh than that of the millions of slave laborers forced to work in the Nazis' armaments and war industries.

Bishop Lehmann said the Church believes that only a few hundred of the central and east Europeans employed in church institutions remain alive today. For that reason, the Catholic fund will be separated into two parts. One will make direct payments to those survivors who can be found. The other will establish church facilities in eastern Europe to benefit the descendants of forced laborers and the society in which they live.

The Catholic Church's decision differs sharply from that of the main Protestant community in Germany, the Diakonisches Werk. The Protestant group announced last month that it would contribute the same sum -- $4.6 million -- directly to the slave-labor compensation fund created by the German government and private business groups.

Bishop Lehmann told reporters that there were what he called "good legal reasons" why the his church would not contribute to the government fund. But the decision has nonetheless met sharp criticism from other organizations seeking compensation for the slave laborers.

Guenther Decker, a lawyer who represents one of these organizations, said:

"There are simply no grounds for the Catholic Church or any other organization to go its own way in this matter. This opens the way for private companies to go their own way or make new proposals regarding compensation."

Catholic church spokesmen reject the criticism. They told our correspondent today that the government fund was intended to compensate those forced laborers interned in a concentration camp or a comparable prison or ghetto. It was also intended to help those forced to work in businesses or in the public sector.

The Church, on the other hand, agues that the wartime slave labor assigned to its institutions did not fall into these categories because they were assigned to the agricultural sector or worked in church-run kitchens or hospitals. It says that, according to the principles laid down by the German government, such people are excluded from receiving compensation from the official fund.

The Catholic Church has never provided details of the number of foreign workers and forced laborers employed in church institutions between 1939 and 1945. The figure of 5,000 given by the church is described as an estimate based on a search through the records in all German Catholic dioceses. The church says it is impossible to provide a more precise figure because there is no detailed information. Altogether, there were about 12 million prisoners of war, foreign workers and forced laborers in Germany during the war.

The Nazis seized many convents and monasteries, dispossessing and expelling their orders. Many other Catholic orders were forced to share their quarters with Nazi facilities, such as temporary housing for children brought from the countryside for safekeeping. Some became reserve military hospitals for the German army. The German Catholic Church has previously argued that there is no evidence that any church community or institution asked local employment offices to assign them foreign workers or slave labor. It says the only references to forced laborers working under prison-like conditions were found in the records of monasteries that had been seized from the church and used to accommodate prisoners-of-war.

According to the Church, too, individual members of its religious orders frequently suffered reprisals for violating regulations prohibiting giving food or other assistance to the slave laborers.