Compensation Conflict

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Greece's 1,950 holocaust survivors, many of whom were slave laborers for Hitler's war machine, aren't waiting for Germany to compensate them. Real restitution, they argue, may come sooner from the bottom of a Greek gulf. This week a team of French divers will take to the Messinian Gulf in the southern Peloponnese in search of an estimated $2.4 billion booty of gold bars, coins and jewels taken by the Nazis from Greek Jews in early 1943. The loot was tossed into the sea by a senior Nazi officer who hoped to retrieve it after the war. This week's treasure hunt follows a tip from a mystery informant linked to the late Max Merten, the notorious Nazi believed to have orchestrated the Peloponnese plan while serving as a military administrator in Salonika in northern Greece.

The treasure hunt has added to tension between Germany and Greece regarding compensation for Nazi crimes. The person who tipped Jewish officials off to the sunken booty says that information is worth half the treasure. The Greek state also wants half, and even Germany may stake a claim, all of which could leave the Greek Holocaust survivors with less that one-quarter of their own fortune.

Berlin is annoyed with Athens for "allowing bad memories to come to the surface," according to a senior Foreign Ministry official. That's diplomatic shorthand for the $27 million in reparations that the Greek Supreme Court ordered Berlin to pay to the families of 217 Greek Orthodox residents of Distomo, a village in central Greece, who were massacred by the Nazis in 1944. If the Germans don't pay up, the Supreme Court has sanctioned the confiscation and sale of German holdings in Greece, including the German Archeological Institute and the Goethe Institute buildings in Athens. German government lawyers plan to contest the Supreme Court ruling at a trial in September. Says Ioannis Stamoulis, the lawyer acting on behalf of relatives of the Distomo victims: "For years Germany treated us as if we were ants, and it an elephant. Now the tables have finally turned. And Germany must face up to the horror of its Nazi past in Greece." If the dispute is not resolved, the bad memories are unlikely to recede anytime soon.