EXTENDED deadline urged as slave labor fund gears up for first payments

Thursday, May 31st 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

BERLIN (AP) _ With German compensation finally set to reach surviving Nazi-era slave laborers, industry and the government faced a long-simmering problem Thursday: making sure all victims get a chance to apply.

Officials from Eastern Europe and the United States urged German lawmakers to extend an Aug. 11 deadline, a day after Parliament voted for the start of payouts from the $4.6 billion fund after more than two years of tough negotiations.

Many of the more than 1 million people forced to work under inhumane conditions for the Nazi war economy live in remote parts of Eastern Europe or in South America, and advocates worry that some who had given up hope will need time to put together the proof needed to receive money.

``There are still a lot of dangers that could follow yesterday's happy solution,'' Poland's ambassador in Berlin, Jerzy Kranz, told German radio.

Payments to the aging survivors are expected to start in mid-June, but fund officials say it may take 18 months before the last victims see money from the fund, financed 50-50 by the German government and industry.

After the dismissal of virtually all U.S. lawsuits against German companies, Parliament removed the final legal hurdle Wednesday by declaring itself satisfied that German industry now has the ``legal peace'' it has demanded as its part of the deal.

That move kicks the machinery of the fund into full gear, but some crucial details _ including how many people are ultimately eligible for compensation _ remained unclear.

Kranz said Parliament may simply have to extend the Aug. 11 application deadline, a suggestion endorsed by the German government negotiator on slave labor, Otto Lambsdorff, as well as the United States.

``The United States would support such a change, which would improve the opportunity for victims to apply for payments,'' James Bindenagel, the State Department's envoy on Holocaust issues, said in a letter to German lawmaker Volker Beck, a fund trustee, that was released Thursday.

Applicants are being asked to present proof of their claims, which could include copies of Nazi-issued ``work cards,'' medical records, witness accounts, even letters they wrote while forced into labor.

The German government and the Red Cross International Tracing Service, a German-based agency, will try to verify unproven claims by searching archives and databases of former slave laborers.

The fund's partner agencies in Eastern Europe and elsewhere are screening claims and distributing the money. The fund itself will make only spot checks of the applications, chief administrator Karl-Heinz Michalczik said.

The partner agencies are submitting initial lists of 10,000 survivors each to the German foundation, who will be paid in the next few weeks, he said.

Then, the fund will work through further batches of applicants. Poland, for example, already has approved some 300,000 people to receive compensation.

``We expect at the end to have more than 1.5 million applications,'' Michalczik said.

Wednesday's German decision was welcomed in Eastern Europe, and earned praise from Israel and President Bush. But, 56 years after World War II, there also was much skepticism.

``So many promises have been made that these people are losing hope that they will still be alive when this compensation takes place,'' said Jozef Weiss, the leader of Slovakia's Jewish community.

In Moscow, the organization processing Russian claims said it had prepared its first list of 10,000 names. But, said Alexei Troshkin, secretary of the Russian Foundation for Understanding and Reconciliation, ``people are passing away every day.''