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Hungary demands return of $8 million for Holocaust survivors

August 30, 2012 |  1:34 pm

Hungary is demanding that a United States organization return roughly $8 million in payments for Holocaust survivors, claiming it has failed to properly account for the money. The American organization, in turn, says it provided reams of information and accuses Hungary of stonewalling.

More than half a million Hungarian Jews perished during the Holocaust. Five years ago, the country agreed to provide $21 million over a five-year period to help impoverished survivors of Hungarian descent, working with a Hungarian organization and the Claims Conference, based in New York, which handles compensation programs for people who suffered Nazi persecution. 

The money was supposed to be a down payment to help aging victims while Hungary worked with the organization on the longer, painstaking process of property and asset restitution tied to the Holocaust. The funding ranges from $800 to $2,000 per person annually to provide medicine, hearing aids and other necessities to the poorest of Hungarian survivors, Claims Conference said.

Two years ago, after a new government came to power in Hungary, commissioner Andras Levente Gal began challenging how the money had been spent, asking for more details about the funds. The Hungarian government halted its payments to the organization, holding on to $5.6 million.

“It is impossible to identify the individuals eligible for compensation or the grounds for their eligibility” based on the documents it provided, the Hungarian Ministry of Public Administration and Justice said on its website  this week, arguing the organization had shown that the funds were distributed “on a far-from-equal footing.”

Gal is now seeking to reclaim roughly $8 million from the group, along with interest and added charges. The U.S. organization counters that it has repeatedly provided detailed reports to the Hungarian government on how the money was distributed, including one exceeding 400 pages in length that included the names of all of the beneficiaries, what they got and when.

“Since this government commissioner has taken over they have not released one penny and have used all kinds of excuses why they can’t release the money and why they won’t,” said Greg Schneider, executive vice president of Claims Conference.

Hungarian officials most recently asked where every Holocaust survivor benefiting from the program was during the war, Schneider said. The New York organization said it would work with thousands of survivors around the world to gather that information, if Hungary signed an agreement that it would release the promised money within five business days of getting those details.

Instead, the group found itself faced with a new demand that it learned of only through the Hungarian government website: that it return the $8-million it had already gotten. The government statement said a 60-day deadline to provide more information had passed.

The Hungarian ministry said any future restitution for Holocaust survivors abroad will be handed out by the Hungarian organization that has handled payments to survivors within the country, instead of Claims Conference. The U.S. organization says it is highly unlikely that the Hungarian group would be in a position to help needy survivors living abroad.

The dispute has erupted at a time when Jewish organizations say bias against Hungarian Jews is at alarming heights, surging dramatically in recent years.

Nearly two-thirds of Hungarians surveyed this year said Jews “still talk too much about what happened to them in the Holocaust,” the Anti-Defamation League found, the highest rate among European countries it polled. Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel handed back a Hungarian award this summer, saying Hungary was whitewashing its past crimes.

Jewish organizations also complained that Hungary had dragged its feet in finding and arresting an alleged Nazi-era torturer, detaining him only after a British tabloid had confronted him at his Budapest apartment days earlier. The news emerged last month while President Janos Adler was in Israel, facing uncomfortable questions about the apparent rise in Hungarian animus toward Jews.

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-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles

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