Representatives of Holocaust victims and 16 German companies broke off negotiations today over how to compensate survivors of Nazi slave labor camps after acknowledging they were still far apart over who should get the money and how much they should receive.
The latest round of talks, mediated by the U.S. and German governments, achieved little progress this week in Bonn. Lawyers for the victims are seeking as much as $20 billion in payments, but German firms say the fund should amount to no more than $1.7 billion. The companies also want "legal peace," or immunity from future claims.
Besides the disparity in the proposed size of the fund, there are glaring differences over how many Nazi camp survivors would actually qualify for payments.
The Nazis are believed to have employed as many as 12 million slaves and forced laborers, but one study shows that 1.5 million laborers are still alive while another puts the figure at 2.3 million.
Deputy U.S. Treasury Secretary Stuart Eizenstat, who is leading the talks with Germany's former finance minister Otto Lambsdorff, emphasized that continued bickering would only prolong the suffering and injustice felt by those who have never received reparations. "We all feel tremendous time pressures," Eizenstat said. "There is a great weight imposed by history and the biological clock because 10 percent of the survivors die every year."
The talks are complicated by a clashing array of interests brought to the negotiating table by more than 90 participants. The U.S. and German governments are joined by representatives of Israel and five other countries where many surviving laborers live--Belarus, Russia, Poland, Ukraine and the Czech Republic. There also are administrators from the Jewish Claims Conference and teams of lawyers from the plaintiffs and the German companies.
Michael Witti, a German lawyer representing some 300,000 former slave laborers, accused the companies of lacking good faith and predicted a final settlement could take several months. But Wolfgang Gibowski, a spokesman for the industries that will pay compensation, blamed class-action lawyers.
"With all the different voices and opinions being put forward, the victims' lawyers are partly to blame for the slow progress in the talks," he said.
Eizenstat said the tortuous exchanges over compensation this week would clearly delay agreement well beyond the Sept. 1 deadline set by Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.
The German leader is expected to meet with industry representatives in early September in hopes of convincing them to make a more generous offer before full negotiations resume in Washington on Oct. 6.
CAPTION: Deputy U.S. Treasury Secretary Stuart Eizenstat expects Sept. 1 deadline to pass without accord.