BRUSSELS, Belgium – The Belgian government and banks agreed on Tuesday to pay $170 million to Holocaust survivors, families of victims and the Jewish community for their material losses during Word War II.
Campaigners welcomed the decision to compensate those whose property and goods in Belgium had been looted by Nazi occupiers.
"In a certain way, justice has been done. Unfortunately there are people who never came back" from the Nazi death camps, said Eli Ringer, the co-chair of the committee on the restitution of Jewish assets.
Overall, $54 million will be paid to individual claimants with the rest going to a Jewish trust that will help the poor and keep the memory of the horrors of the Holocaust alive.
"So this money will be for the Jewish community and will help us to bring people to Auschwitz, (pay for) education, etc. This is very, very important to us," Ringer told Associated Press Television News.
Some 50,000 Jews lived in Belgium in the 1930s and about half died in the Holocaust.
Last year, Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt apologized for Belgian authorities' involvement in the deportation of Jews to Nazi extermination camps.
Of the total restitution payout, $69.8 million will come from the Belgian authorities, and $85 million from banks. Most of the remainder came from insurance companies.
Belgium is facing 5,210 outstanding claims for restitution stemming from the Holocaust. From those, 162 amount to more than $30,000.
The restitution commission acknowledged that its offer fell short of some claimants' expectations, saying it was "frequently confronted with the disappointment of rightful claimants who had plainly expected much bigger indemnification."
For Belgium, it was another opportunity to come to terms with a dark chapter of its history.
Last year, a government-backed report blamed Belgian authorities and the ruling elite for collaborating with the Nazi persecution of Jews.
The head of the Senate even condemned the "cowardliness of our administration" during the 1940-1944 occupation.
At first Jewish citizens had to be registered, then they were obliged to wear yellow stars, then schools and hospitals were segregated. Raids soon rounded up Jews in Belgian cities and they were deported to Nazi concentration camps. Some cities helped with the deportations that sent thousands to their deaths.
After the war, many cases were considered too delicate to handle by military courts and any involvement of the authorities in the persecution was rejected.
With the restitution, "the primary objective was clearly to close a section of the past, which still seems half-open, more than 60 years after the events," the commission said.