Compensation for WWII forced labourers

As soon as the Second World War started, Nazi Germany experienced a sharp decline in industrial output - a result of the many young German workers who left their jobs to fight. Hitler decided to solve this problem by forcing people in occupied countries to fill the gaps in its workforce. Hundreds of thousands of Central Europeans were deported from their home countries to Germany or German-occupied territories to work in their factories.

The majority of these forced labourers had to work and live under very harsh conditions. But it was not until 55 years after the war that the German Government decided to resolve the longstanding issue of compensation once and for all. The German Foundation Act, passed on August 12th 2000, ordered that 10 billion German marks were to be paid into a newly established foundation, which would then use the money to provide financial compensation to victims of the Nazi forced labour system. Today, there are millions of former forced labourers who have yet to see a penny in compensation for their hardships. Jiri Sitler, the Czech Republic's chief negotiator for compensation, says that the money received depends on how a forced labourer had to suffer: With the passing of the German Foundation Act, the "Remembrance, Responsibility, and Future" Foundation came into being, and now faces the task of working with partner organisations based in various countries to track down former wartime forced and slave labourers. The foundation's partner organisation in the Czech Republic is the Czech-German Fund for the Future, in Poland the Polish-German Reconciliation Foundation and in Slovakia and Hungary, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM). Since autumn 2000, these organisations have been busy locating possible applicants for compensation. In Central Europe, the majority of eligible claimants are most likely to be found in Poland. Some Polish victims of Nazi injustice received 500 million German marks in 1992. I spoke to Hubert Antczak from the Polish-German Reconciliation Foundation and asked him how many claims the foundation expected to be filed this time: The transportation of forced labourers to and from work camps involved hundreds of thousands of people. After the war, many of them returned home, trying to put the past behind them. Now, filing for compensation, they have to prove that they were indeed forced labourers. Hubert Antczak, from the Polish-German Reconciliation Foundation, once more: The partner organisations in Poland and the Czech Republic have an advantage because most former forced labourers are already officially registered. But those in Hungary and Slovakia have to depend on public notice and on victim support groups to come forward. In order to assist those who want to file for compensation in Hungary and in Slovakia, both the Budapest and the Bratislava branches of the IOM have established a special telephone hotline which people can call for information. Daniela Stabova is from the Bratislava office of the IOM, and tells us how her office, which has its headquarters in Switzerland, communicates with the Slovak claimants: But, according to Aniko Bakoniy from the IOM office in Budapest, assessing a claimant's eligibility is not the only problem that the partner organisations are faced with: ...but that's where the big problem lies: the payment. Although the new law on compensation stipulates that 10 billion German marks is to be paid into the foundation's bank account - half of it by the state and the other by German companies who benefited from forced labour - the foundation has so far only received the German government's share. The problem stems from a clause in the law that promises that these companies will be provided with legal protection, which means that once they hand over the 5 billion German marks, plus a further 100 million marks in interest, all lawsuits filed by or on behalf of forced labourers, which were pending on July 17th 2000, had to be dismissed by a U.S. court. The German companies, have stated that although they have the 5 billion marks ready for payment, they want to be provided with legal peace before the money is transferred to the foundation. Two U.S. court decisions, however, have already refused to dismiss the pending class-action suits, reasoning that the money needed to be paid first. The legal battle continues but for many, there's no time to wait: Karel Horak is a former forced labourer and one of the founders of the Czech Union of Forced Labourers. He works long hours processing, filing, and reviewing claimants' application forms. In the Czech Republic 70,000 people are expected to file for compensation. So far, there have been 54,000 claims. Hungary has received about 1660 claims and Slovakia about 1940. Although all wartime forced labourers are trying hard to meet the compensation deadline of August 11th, to present all the necessary documents, it remains to be seen how long it will be before they receive any of the promised 10 billion German marks. As 56 years have passed since the end of World War Two, for many of them time is running out.