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Germany: Catholic Church Begins Search For Forced Laborers

  • Roland Eggleston

Germany's Roman Catholic Church has begun looking for the forced laborers -- most of them from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union -- who worked during the Nazi dictatorship at hospitals, farms, and other institutions run by the church. About $2.4 million has been allocated to compensate them for the injustices they suffered.

Munich, 16 October 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Caritas, the Catholic Church's main charity organization in Germany, says the church has already received six applications for compensation. A senior Caritas official, Karl-Heinz Zerrle, said over the weekend that he expected the first payments to be made before the end of the year.

Zerrle said that most of those forced to work in Church institutions in Germany during World War II war came from conquered territory in the former Soviet Union and eastern Europe, and it is in these areas that the Church is focussing its search -- although some church laborers were Italians, Belgians, and Dutch.

Zerrle said that church records show that the majority of the church's forced laborers worked on farms owned by monasteries and convents. Others worked in church-run hospitals.

Another Caritas official, Helga Kroll, said that finding those eligible for compensation is not easy. She said the church knows the names of only about 200 people who were forced laborers, and that identifying others will be difficult. All applications are being checked against church records.

Kroll said the church believes that, overall, there were about 10,000 forced laborers working in its institutions during the Nazi period.

The chairman of the German Catholic Bishops Conference, Karl Lehmann, has acknowledged that the compensation offer comes too late for many of the survivors. Lehmann estimated recently that only a few hundred of the estimated 10,000 forced laborers are still alive. Some officials have put the figure as low as 1,000.

The Church reparation fund is in two parts. About $2.4 million (5 million German marks) has been set aside for payments to survivors, but the amount will be increased if it turns out that there are more survivors than expected. And an equal sum has been has been allocated to establish institutions and facilities in Eastern Europe to benefit the descendants of forced laborers and the societies in which they now live.

The church intends to pay about $2,400 (5,000 marks) to each survivor, in two installments. The payment will be increased to three times that amount if it is shown that the forced labor was carried out "under conditions similar to those of a concentration camp." But Caritas official Zerrle said no such case is currently known to church institutions.

The head of the Catholic church's search service, Ferdinand Pronold, said records indicate that forced laborers working on monastery farms were "treated like German farm laborers -- no better and no worse." A recent church statement said their fate was a good deal less cruel than that of the millions of slave laborers forced to work in the armaments and other war industries.