IN LATE November a New York judge will rule on the disposition of the landmark $1.25 billion settlement arrived at last year between Swiss banks and survivors of the Holocaust. It won't be the first such sum; the German government has paid some $50 billion in reparations to survivors over the years. But the amount is significant and, because most of those with specific claims of stolen Swiss bank accounts are dead, is likely to be disbursed more as general aid to survivors than as straight restitution for losses. Other, perhaps even larger, settlements are likely to follow as a result of negotiations with German banks, Austrian banks, insurance conglomerates and other industries now belatedly being forced to make a reckoning for what they did in World War II.
Since none of this money can compensate survivors in any real way, the question of how best to use it poses some intriguing practical and moral challenges. One proposal being floated by a New York lawyer active in Holocaust survivor matters, Menachem Rosensaft, is to devote the money to securing full health insurance for those survivors who are elderly -- the vast majority -- and in deteriorating health. Of the roughly 100,000 survivors still alive in this country, the youngest are in their seventies and the average age is over 80. Filling gaps in medical care for those who need it could make a dramatic difference in quality of life for a high proportion of all survivors; it might also make the money go further than simply handing out checks.
One threshold matter the judge must decide in the Swiss case is the size of the slice that will go to lawyers. Class-action lawyers currently are requesting 1.8 percent, or $25 million, of the total, which some critics have called excessive given the degree to which this settlement was arrived at not by lawyers but by public officials and international pressure. Though strictly speaking a class-action suit, this settlement, like Holocaust reparations generally, cannot really be compared to the kinds of medical or product liability cases that routinely generate such lawyers' fees. No one can seriously dispute the proposition that Holocaust reparations, however inadequate a proxy for history, should go as much as possible to actual Holocaust victims.