EXCLUSIVE: Australians who lost loved ones in the Holocaust say a program meant to compensate them for property taken by the Nazis is inadequate.
Australians who lost family in the Holocaust say they’re not being properly compensated by a Jewish charity administering a fund to compensate them for property confiscated by the Nazis.
They said the New York-based Claims Conference is offering them a fraction of the value of the property lost, and unjustly keeping hold of the rest.
Lionel Rosenberg's father, uncle and grandfather fled persecution in Nazi Germany in the 1930s. His grandmother was fatally shot as she tried to escape.
Lionel and his four siblings only learnt recently that their grandfather held property in what was formerly East Germany.
Mr Rosenberg, 54, told SBS he is disgusted at the level of compensation being offered Jewish Holocaust survivors and heirs by the Claims Conference for property confiscated or sold under duress.
"I am an heir," the Darwin grandfather said. "I am rightfully entitled to this.”
“It's diabolical that any group of people, totally unrelated to my family or myself, should claim ownership of something that belonged to my grandfather."
Listen: Phillippa Carisbrooke reports
In 1992, the Claims Conference reached an agreement with the German government to become the legal successor to thousands of unclaimed Jewish properties in what was once East Germany.
For ten years it ran a Goodwill Fund, making payments to former Jewish owners or heirs, offering up to 80 per cent of the proceeds of properties.
The fund closed in 2004 but in January last year the Claims Conference opened the Late Applicants' Fund, in response to calls from survivors and heirs who failed to file timely claims to the former fund.
The Late Applicants' Fund offers original owners and heirs, for a limited two year period, 25 per cent of the proceeds the Claims Conference received from the German government for properties, with a cap of $72, 000.
"It's diabolical that any group of people, totally unrelated to my family or myself, should claim ownership of something that belonged to my grandfather."
New York based lawyer, and member of the Claimants Representative Committee, David Rowland, said payments fall well short of what heirs might reasonably expect.
"Let’s say that a family has an asset worth a million euros which they file a claim for," he said.
"The Claims Conference has a cap of €50,000 ($A71,000). That means that the Claims Conference would keep €950,000 ($A1.3 million) worth of that asset. We just think that's unfair."
During 18-month long negotiations with the Claims Conference about the rules governing the Late Applicants' Fund the Committee unsuccessfully pushed for a minimum payment of 60 per cent.
The Claims Conference has left the door open for a possible higher payment, if the fund isn't exhausted by initial pay outs. The Conference said it will make a decision about that after this year's December 31 deadline, having assessed the merit of all claims.
But the Claimants Representative Committee estimated the Claims Conference should have offered $US288 million ($A324 million) - not $US72 million ($A81 million) - to adequately fund the program.
It also said it is unfair that claimants must sign a declaration waiving their right to legal action against the Claims Conference before knowing what payment they might receive.
"Unfair" pay outs slammed
Last year Eve Fisher received a $A145,000 payment from the Claims' Conference's Goodwill Fund. The writer, who is based in the Victorian seaside town of Torquay, was able to make a late claim due to medical reasons.
She told SBS the money has completely changed her life.
"I had a lot of personal debt. I've paid all that out. I've helped my parents out. I've got money saved now, which I never had before. I am lucky."
She said it's a disgrace that people making claims now are being offered far less than she was.
"Even if their claim is worth millions, they are only getting up to €50,000. Whereas I got 80 per cent of my claim because I got it in in an earlier time.”
“I just don't know how they can look themselves in the mirror on this. Pay up. And pay the proper amount that's due."
The needs of Holocaust survivors must be put first
Hundreds of millions of dollars recovered by the Claims Conference have been used to fund social services for Jewish victims of Nazi persecution worldwide,including in Australia, which has the highest concentration of Holocaust survivors per capita outside Israel. A smaller amount has funded groups that engage in Holocaust education, documentation, and research.
The President of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, Robert Goot, is a Claims Conference Director. He said the organisation needs to set aside some money to continue funding services for vulnerable Holocaust survivors.
"Those people are in the autumn of their lives," he said.
"The Claims Conference has existed to provide assistance and succour to them. It provides them with food because they can't afford it. It provides them with heating. That's the purpose of the Claims Conference."
Mr Goot said Holocaust survivors and heirs had two decades to file claims for lost property under previous programs, for which it extended a series of deadlines and that everyone is disappointed at what's being offered.
"Return what is rightfully our family's, and stop setting up a bureaucracy, a little empire of your own using other people's money."
"Obviously there is not enough money for him (Mr Rosenberg). There is not enough money for the survivors. There is not enough money. There's never been enough money. Everyone is getting a mere token for their suffering and loss," he said.
The German Consulate General in Sydney declined to be interviewed by SBS about the issue.
In a statement, Vice Consul Andreas Feuchtmueller said the German government and Claims Conference have for many years held "confidential, trustful, constructive and fruitful negotiations" about how to proceed with compensation.
The Vice Consul said the German government does not comment on the way the Claims Conference implements the agreements reached.
The Claimants Representative Committee has filed a complaint with the New York Attorney General's office against the Claims Conference.
Mr Rowland said the Committee may file a law suit on behalf of survivors and heirs if it cannot persuade the Claims Conference to change its payment policy.
But he acknowledges that legal action might drain funds from the Claims Conference that the Committee would like to see fairly distributed to families instead.
Mr Rosenberg has appealed for the Claims Conference to review its position.
"Treat me and others like me with dignity and respect. Return what is rightfully our family's, and stop setting up a bureaucracy, a little empire of your own using other people's money."