Finding documentation for claims of persecution in North Africa created a particular challenge, since neither Yad Vashem nor the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum had covered these countries, and experts on the Holocaust in North Africa did not know where lists of slave and forced laborers were to be found. With the assistance of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the holdings of the relevant archives in France, Italy, the United Kingdom, Israel and Germany were scoured; contact was made with the National Archives of Tunisia and Morocco and with such organizations as the World Association of Tunisian Jews. In view of the absence of Israeli or U.S. diplomatic relations with Libya, the assistance was sought of the British Embassy in Tripoli, which kindly arranged for historians at the Libyan Studies Centre to review documents held in the National Archives of Libya.
Finally, where no documentation could be found, applicants were invited to describe their persecution experiences and these statements could constitute part of the proof that the claimant was eligible for a payment.
The comprehensive Claims Conference research also led to a re-evaluation of certain aspects of the Shoah. In Bulgaria, long thought to have protected its Jews from the Holocaust, researchers combing through newly available historical records uncovered evidence of 112 wartime labor camps for Jews. Archival documents combined with personal stories, letters and photos from survivors applying for payment led finally to Germany’s recognition that Bulgarian Jews were entitled to compensation for their suffering.
This discovery meant more than enabling Bulgarian Jews to receive acknowledgement and payment. It restored a long-unknown aspect of the Holocaust to public knowledge, while some of the survivors are still alive. This compensation process enabled the real plight of Bulgarian Jews during World War II to come to light, shattering a long-standing myth that the Bulgarian government had protected its Jewish citizens from persecution, when, in fact, its officials expropriated them, forced them out of their homes, confined them, exploited their labor and expropriated their belongings.
The Claims Conference also successfully pressed the German Foundation to pay claimants able to prove persecution in certain camps in Romania andHungary. In addition, for the first time since the end of the Second World War, former Jewish forced laborers in North Africa became eligible for compensation, due to Claims Conference research. Without the Claims Conference’s research and the demand for a re-examination of the status of all these claimants, they would have been excluded from consideration for forced or slave labor payments.
The Claims Conference often took the initiative in identifying and searching out groups of potentially eligible claimants, such as the 350 Jewish American soldiers, transferred from a German army POW Stalag to the concentration camp of Berga in Germany. The documentary of their story ("Berga: Soldiers of Another War") was broadcast in the United States as the Program for Former Slave and Forced Laborers progressed. The Claims Conference was able to contact and to compensate the 17 surviving Jewish POWs of Berga.
At Yad Vashem, Claims Conference researchers digitized lists of slave laborers in Romania and Hungary. These lists will soon be posted on www.jewishgen.org. This compensation process not only paid survivors of slave and forced labor, but recorded the persecution history of each and every one, adding to the known history of the Holocaust and allowing these survivors’ stories to be preserved.