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Germany: Fund To Compensate Russian Ex-Slave Workers

Officials from a German foundation overseeing payments to Russian men and women forced to work as slaves during the Nazi time are in Moscow this week to work out details of the scheme. RFE/RL Sophie Lambroschini attended a press conference yesterday where the foundation explained who is eligible for the money and how much former slaves can expect to get.

Moscow, 16 November 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Hundreds of thousands of Russians forced to work as Nazi slave laborers during World War II may be eligible for financial compensation, according to a German foundation responsible for distributing the money.

The chairman of the foundation, the Remembrance, Responsibility, and Future Foundation, was in Moscow yesterday to explain the fund's purpose and who might be eligible. The foundation has held similar meetings in Prague, Warsaw, Minsk, and Kyiv.

Fund chairman Michael Jansen says the foundation expects to collect 10 billion marks (more than $4 billion) for an estimated 1.5 million surviving laborers throughout the world. He says the amount involved shows that Germany takes its obligations seriously:

"It is a sign that our country takes its responsibility from the past seriously. And we hope that in this manner we will reach those people who have particularly suffered and that we can do them some good at the end of their lives. It is not a reparation for the torment, but it is a sign of our good will."

Jansen says both concentration camp workers and forced laborers in the German territories are entitled to compensation. Concentration camp workers are entitled to compensation up to 15,000 marks, while forced laborers will get up to 5,000 marks. The money would be paid out in two stages.

Children who lived with their forced laborer parents or who worked themselves as laborers are also entitled to compensation.

Heirs of forced laborers are mostly excluded from the payments. One exception is for children of slave workers whose parents died after February 1999, the date when negotiations over compensation began.

The idea for compensating slave laborers took root after U.S. lawyers filed law suits against firms like Deutsche bank and Daimler-Benz for allegedly having profited from slave labor during the Nazi regime. The money will be contributed half by the German government and half by German industry, according to an agreement worked out this year.

The foundation is now beginning negotiations with Russian authorities over the conditions, mechanisms and controls for disbursing the money. It is working through a local Russian partner, the "Fund for Mutual Understanding and Reconciliation."

Jansen was accompanied in Moscow by former German UN Ambassador Hans-Otto Brautigam.

Brautigam explains the evidence to prove Nazi labor status would also have to be worked out jointly by the two partners in the fund. He says both German and Russian archives will be consulted to determine eligibility:

"Which evidence will be accepted? It is very important that evidence that is in German archives will also be accepted. The thing is...a certain generosity is necessary in the assessment of evidence 50 years after. Some people won't have proof that they were forced laborers in Germany so many years later. That's why it will also be accepted that witnesses bear testimonies that show someone was in Germany at the time."

The foundation hopes to start making payments as soon as next year. Recipients have until August (2001) to apply for eligibility.

Foundation officials say they will be vigilant in trying to prevent fraud and in seeing that those who qualify for the money receive it.

Last month, a Ukrainian businessman and parliamentarian, Viktor Zherditsky, was arrested in Germany for skimming off up to 86 million marks out of the 540 million marks earmarked in compensation for Nazi occupation of Ukraine.

Observers note that even in Russia, the history of compensating Nazi victims has not gone entirely smoothly.

The German foundation's local partner was accused in 1998 of mismanaging another fund earmarked for Holocaust victims. It is now undergoing an audit by Russian officials.

Jansen says that it was Russian government that selected the Fund for Mutual Understanding and Reconciliation.

The deputy head of the Russian fund, Anatoly Ivanov, notes the fund was criticized for what he calls "abuses" but not for embezzlement.

Both parties point out the Russian partner is now under different management.