As Holocaust compensation deal turns 70, survivors face new challenges in Ukraine

The Luxembourg Agreement signed after WWII saw West Germany assume responsibility for Nazi atrocities and pay reparations

Illustrative: Holocaust survivor and refugee Tatyna Ryabaya, 99, and her daughter sit on a bed in a hotel room in Moldova after fleeing Ukraine before flying to Israel on a special medical transport flight on April 27, 2022. (International Fellowship of Christians and Jews)
Illustrative: Holocaust survivor and refugee Tatyna Ryabaya, 99, and her daughter sit on a bed in a hotel room in Moldova after fleeing Ukraine before flying to Israel on a special medical transport flight on April 27, 2022. (International Fellowship of Christians and Jews)

FRANKFURT, Germany (AFP) — Holocaust survivor Colette Avital has for years been helping victims of Nazi crimes to get compensation. More than seven decades after World War II, her work remains crucial even as the Ukraine conflict heaps on new challenges.

Avital counts among negotiators the Claims Conference, an organization that seeks damages for Holocaust survivors and was a signatory to the Luxembourg Agreement under which West Germany assumed responsibility for Nazi atrocities and paid reparations.

As the accord turned 70 on Thursday, Avital said the Conference’s work over the last year went beyond seeking financial compensation for victims to helping with life-saving evacuations from Ukraine as Russia’s invasion on February 24 brought war back to Europe.

“They had to be taken out with ambulances and flown to different places, including to Israel and then taken care of,” 83-year-old Avital, who herself fled from Romania to Israel as a child, told AFP.

At a ceremony in Berlin marking the Luxembourg Agreement’s anniversary, the Conference will also announce the latest outcome of negotiations — emergency humanitarian payments of 12 million euros ($12 million) to 8,500 Ukrainian Holocaust survivors, as well as an increase of 130 million euros for homecare programs.

‘Different needs’

Under the Luxembourg Agreement signed on September 10, 1952, West Germany accepted responsibility for the Nazi genocide and paid more than three billion marks (about 1.5 billion euros) to the state of Israel and the Claims Conference.

It was widely seen as West Germany’s first major step back into the community of nations after World War II in which six million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust.

Since then, the German government has paid more than $90 billion as a result of negotiations with the Claims Conference, according to the group.

File: Colette Avital, chair of the Center of Organizations of Holocaust Survivors in Israel, center, speaks with relatives of a Holocaust survivor who recently passed away, during a Hanukkah menorah lighting ceremony at the Western Wall, in the Old City of Jerusalem, Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2021. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

Some survivors — such as those incarcerated in concentration camps — remain eligible for ongoing payments, while others — including those who fled from the Nazi regime — get one-off payouts.

The Claims Conference estimates that there are still 280,000 survivors alive today.

While the victims are fewer today, their “needs are quite different,” Avital, a veteran Israeli diplomat and politician, told AFP.

“They are older, and they are sick, and they are frail. One of the major things that is being done is to give them homecare.”

Illustrative: Holocaust survivor Maya Zernova on a flight bringing her from Ukraine to Israel on March 17, 2022 (Screen capture/Channel 13)

‘Very important’

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who will attend the ceremony in Berlin, called the Luxembourg Agreement “fundamental.”

“The payments to survivors and the homecare program are very close to our heart,” he said.

Avital — who will speak on a panel at the ceremony — still remembers her harrowing early childhood in Romania, ruled by dictator and Nazi ally Ion Antonescu during much of World War II.

She and her family had to wear yellow stars to mark them as Jews, her father was detained, and she and her mother were forced into hiding during the war.

They fled to Israel in 1950, when she was 10.

She went on to have a successful diplomatic career, which included serving as Israel’s consul general in New York, and was also a lawmaker in the left-wing Labor party.

In her view, the Luxembourg Agreement helped to save the battered economy of the young Israeli state.

“The Israeli economy was on the verge of collapse,” she said. “It had nothing, it had actually no money to pay (for) food, no money to pay (for) any kind of fuels.”

The anniversary of the accord is “very important, just to mark how extraordinarily relations have developed between Israel and Germany,” she added.

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