BERLIN -- With hopes of securing legal peace and moral closure after more than half a century, U.S. and European officials Monday signed into being a $5 billion fund to compensate more than 1 million survivors of Nazi enslavement and forced labor.
The final step in creating what is likely to be the last major program to rectify the crimes of the Third Reich is expected to ensure that payments of as much as $7,500 each begin reaching the aging victims before Christmas.
The fund is designed to supplant class-action lawsuits filed on behalf of U.S. victims, and it has been hailed by negotiators as the best and broadest means of providing some belated justice to those made to toil for the Nazi regime.
''This adds a new dimension to Germany's collective and continuing acceptance of responsibility for Nazi wrongs, shouldering an obligation never matched by any other nation in history,'' declared the chief U.S. negotiator, Deputy Treasury Secretary Stuart E. Eizenstat.
Most of the estimated 240,000 surviving slave laborers are Jews who were culled from concentration camps and sent to German factory and construction sites to be worked to death. But 750,000 to 1 million forced laborers from Central and Eastern Europe will also be eligible for compensation. They have never previously been acknowledged by the postwar German government in the $60 billion it has already paid in reparations.
During nearly two years of negotiations, drafters settled on a definition of slave labor as that which was intended to work the victim to death, while forced laborers were usually considered industrial ''assets'' and provided with better conditions, Eizenstat said.
''One of the most important achievements of our negotiations is to provide belated recognition and payments to the double victims of the 20th century's worst evils -- Nazism and communism,'' Eizenstat said. After World War II, most of the forced-labor survivors lived for decades under communism in their homelands.
Eizenstat estimated that 80 percent of the compensation money will go to non-Jewish victims.
''With this agreement we close the last open chapter of the Nazi past,'' proclaimed German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who was praised by the foreign participants as the catalyst for the fund's creation. The chancellor, who has been in office less than two years, also appealed to German industries to contribute to ''this long-overdue humanitarian gesture.''
Berlin's federal government has already pledged its half of the $5 billion Remembrance, Responsibility and Future Fund, as the program is called. Despite promised contributions from 3,127 German companies, the industrial share is still more than $900 million short.
Germany's special envoy to the talks, Otto Lambsdorff, assured the victims' representatives that the fund's coffers will be full by the time the first payments are ready. He confidently predicted that will be before Christmas.
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