March 11, 2008

Belgium Agrees to $170 Million in Restitution to Holocaust Victims, Families

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. _ Jacques Weisel remembers the exact day, almost 70 years ago, that his parents and siblings grabbed what little they could carry and ran as the bombs began falling in Brussels.

The Nazis were invading Belgium and the Weisels were Jewish. "We left everything of value behind except the silverware, and that was later stolen from us in a train station," said Weisel, 75, of Tamarac, Fla..

The family eventually ended up in Casablanca, where they spent almost three years in a North African camp for Jewish refugees before emigrating to the United States. But most of their relatives and neighbors did not escape. About half of the 50,000 Jews living in Belgium at the start of World War II died in the Holocaust.

On Tuesday, Belgium's banks and government agreed to finally begin paying $170 million in restitution, years after passing a law authorizing the compensation. The money will go to the Jewish community and to the families of Holocaust survivors whose property and goods were looted by Nazi occupiers.

Overall, $54 million will be paid to individual claimants, with the rest going to a Jewish trust for the poor and for Holocaust education. The funds will come from a combination of the government, banks and insurance companies.

The country is facing 5,210 outstanding claims, with 162 amounting to more than $30,000.

"It's the right thing to do. It sends the right lesson. But there is nothing a country ever could pay out to compensate for a life lost in the Holocaust," said Rositta Kenigsberg, executive vice president of the South Florida-based Holocaust Documentation and Education Center.

The group, which is building a museum in downtown Hollywood, has taken several oral histories from Belgian survivors, including one who was sent to Auschwitz as a young woman.

The Belgian program is the latest compensation effort. The German government has paid more than $6 billion to Jewish victims or their families since the first deal was negotiated by the World Jewish Congress in the 1950s. Other settlements with Swiss banks and European insurance companies have followed.

The cases have been closely watched in South Florida, which is home to the second largest community of Holocaust survivors in the nation.

Kenigsberg said applying for compensation assistance can be complicated, as each settlement has different eligibility standards and deadlines. Jewish Family Service of Broward County and Ruth Rales Jewish Family Service, west of Boca Raton, Fla., offer Holocaust survivor support services and help them file.

Jaclynn Faffer, Ruth Rales' executive director, said some of her organization's Belgian seniors had filed for compensation before the June 2006 deadline.

Jewish Family Service case workers are able to keep almost 500 sick and disabled South Florida survivors in their own homes through programs partially funded through the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, which negotiates with European governments and industries for restitution.

Conference money also helps pay for Cafe Europa gatherings in South Florida, luncheons where survivors can look for people they may not have seen since the Nazis marched into their towns and villages.

More than 1,000 people filled a ballroom at Tuesday's Cafe Europa, at Signature Grand in Davie, Fla.. They seated themselves at circular tables dedicated to different European countries, to assist in making connections.

But while there were dozens of tables for Germany and Poland, where about 3.5 million Jewish people were living before the war, there was only one for Belgium. And only two of the 10 people sitting at that table were living in that country at the onset of World War II, including Weisel. His father, a furrier, lost eight brothers and a sister.

Weisel, who found out about the reparations too late to apply, said the Nazis "took three years of my life." The trauma blocked most of his memories from ages 7 to 10, after his family left the refugee camp. "No money can pay for that," he said.


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