BERLIN – Sixty years after a landmark accord started German government compensation for victims of Nazi crimes, fund administrators and German officials say payments to Holocaust survivors are needed more than ever as they enter their final years.
Most Holocaust survivors experienced extreme trauma as children, suffered serious malnutrition, and lost almost all of their relatives — leaving them today with severe psychological and medical problems, and little or no family support network to help them cope.
In acknowledgement of that, German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble signed off officially Thursday on revisions to the original 1952 compensation treaty, increasing pensions for those living in eastern Europe and broadening who is eligible for payments. Contributions to home care for survivors already have been increased.
"Survivors are passing away on a daily basis but the other side is that individual survivors are needing more help than ever," the Chairman of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, Julius Berman, told The Associated Press ahead of the ceremony.
"While a person came out of the camps very young and eventually developed a life of their own over the years, the impact of what happened at the beginning is now coming to the fore. Whether it's mentally or physically, they're sicker than their peers of the same age."
Holocaust survivor Roman Kent said his experience is something that he will never be able to forget.
"Just witnessing the atrocities committed at the gate entering Auschwitz-Birkenau is more than enough to keep me awake at night until the end of time," he said.
But he stressed that he does not hold current generations of Germans responsible for the past, saying they are actually today united in purpose with Holocaust survivors.
"Both of us do not want our past to be our children's future," he said.
Germany has paid — primarily to Jewish survivors — some €70 billion ($89 billion) in compensation overall for Nazi crimes since the agreement was signed in 1952.
In one change to the treaty that Germany agreed to earlier this year, the country will provide compensation payments to a new category of Nazi victims — some 80,000 Jews who fled ahead of the advancing German army and mobile killing squads and eventually resettled in the former Soviet Union.
They became eligible Nov. 1 for one-time payments of €2,556 ($3,253). The amendment also formalizes an increase in pensions for Holocaust survivors living in formerly communist eastern Europe to the same as those living elsewhere — €300 ($382) per month — from the €200 to €260 ($255 to $331) they had been receiving.
Schaeuble said on Inforadio before the signing ceremony at Berlin's Jewish Museum that once Germany and the Claims Conference had identified the additional victims living in the east, it was only natural to include them in the compensation agreement.
"We still do not know the names of all of the victims," Schaeuble said. "The crimes of the Holocaust were so inconceivably enormous that you can't know all of the victims or those with claims, so you have to adjust it again and again."
Germany already increased payments this year for home care for Holocaust survivors by 15 percent over 2011, and has pledged to raise that further in 2013 and 2014.
Compensation has been ever evolving since the 1952 agreement, with annual negotiations between the Claims Conference and the German government on who should receive funds and how much will be paid.
Still, even 67 years after the end of World War II, there is much to set right, said Stuart Eizenstat, the former U.S. ambassador to the European Union who serves as the Claims Conference's special negotiator.
"One of the things that drives me is that with all of that, the best surveys out there are there are probably 500,000 survivors alive today worldwide and half of them are in poverty or very close to the poverty line," he told the AP. "This is an ongoing responsibility — this is not the end of the road."
Eizenstat said it is a tribute to Germany and officials there that the country continues to acknowledge responsibility for Nazi-era crimes — both with the compensation payments and also in its actions.
"I was very much taken by the degree to which they had come to terms with World War II and were dealing with its consequences, through mandatory Holocaust education; through seemingly small, but important, things like putting plaques in front of homes of Jews who had been expelled; by building a monumental above-ground Holocaust memorial right in the center of reunified Berlin," he said.
"It's a very sharp contrast to what Japan has done in recognizing their responsibilities... it's quite striking."
Conference chairman Berman said the fact that the German government decided to host an event to announce the latest results of negotiations with the Claims Conference at a Berlin event shows it remains committed.
"To me the most significant part of this event ... is that the German government wanted it ... telling again not only the whole world but more importantly telling the German people that it's not over," he said.