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September 21, 2000

Survivors of Forced Labor Deserve Tax-Free Reparations

http://www.jewishjournal.com/opinion/article/survivors_of_forced_labor_deserve_taxfree_reparations_20000922

The horrific racial persecution of the Holocaust is all too familiar to us. That dark period in history was marked by the brutal deaths of millions of innocent people and also involved the virtual enslavement of more than 10 million foreign laborers in Germany.

During World War II, the Third Reich deported millions of Jewish, Polish, Czech, French, Dutch and Soviet men and women from their homelands against their will and forced them to work in Germany under deplorable conditions to sustain Germany's wartime economy.

Of the 10 million foreign laborers forced to work in Germany, only about 2 million survived. After the war, the survivors, or "displaced persons," returned to their own countries. Today, they are well into their 70's and 80's and are living around the world, including in the U.S. They are our neighbors, family and friends. Many survivors are elderly and infirm and face poverty daily. Now they will finally receive reparations for their servitude.

Recently, a settlement was reached among the governments of the U.S., Germany, Israel, and European countries, German industry, victim organizations and plaintiffs involved in class action lawsuits against the German companies to provide reparations to former slave laborers. The Remembrance, Responsibility and the Future Fund will be established with contributions from the German government and more than 3,000 German companies that used slave labor. More than $5 billion will be available for reparations, and payments are expected to begin before the end of the year.

The main goal of the fund is to provide the survivors with a meaningful amount as quickly as possible that will, in some small way, acknowledge and redress the evils of the Nazi era. The foundation will also include funds to support programs that will educate current and future generations about tyranny, human rights and social justice to help us learn from the past, so it's not repeated.

Certainly, no amount of money could ever fully compensate the survivors for the brutal oppression they suffered. But this monetary apology is an important first step for the German government and the modern-day versions of the German companies to take moral responsibility for the decisions of their predecessors. Without the labor deportation scheme orchestrated by the Nazi regime and German industries, it would have been impossible for Germany to sustain required production levels the war demanded. War vehicles needed to be built and the German people had to eat. German historians estimate that thousands of companies used forced or slave labor, and hundreds are still in operation today, including Daimler, Siemens, Volkswagen, BMW and Bayer.

It is speculated that forced labor contributed to the growth and modernization experienced by German industry during and after the war. In fact, many argue that the German economy recovered quickly after the war and is strong today in part because of the use of forced labor. It is only right that the survivors receive compensation for their role in that recovery.

It is very heartening that the international negotiators have reached agreement on this settlement. Now, we must ensure that survivors who reside in California and receive reparations benefit fully from these funds. Therefore, I carried legislation this year to exempt these reparations from state income taxes to help survivors in California, many of whom live on the edge of poverty. While the settlement is an international issue among the survivors, their governments, their attorneys and German companies, AB 1728 is an opportunity for the State of California to acknowledge and support the survivors living here.

AB 1728 received unanimous support in the Legislature and is now awaiting the Governor's signature. The survivors of slave labor are courageous individuals who lived through hellish conditions during the war. The least we can do is spare them from paying taxes on what they rightfully earned decades ago.

Antonio R. Villaraigosa is the former speaker of the California State Assembly. He represents the 45th Assembly District in Los Angeles. Individuals who think they may be eligible for reparations from the Remembrance, Responsibility and the Future Fund may contact his district office at (213) 483-2730 for more information on how to apply.The horrific racial persecution of the Holocaust is all too familiar to us. That dark period in history was marked by the brutal deaths of millions of innocent people and also involved the virtual enslavement of more than 10 million foreign laborers in Germany.

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