As World War II drew toward a close, Tadeusz Dworakowski was working as a slave laborer putting wheels on Mercedes trucks at a factory in Germany.
"In December 1944, the allies were bombing the factory and I was wounded," said Dworakowski, 82. "[The Nazis] sent me to Buchenwald simply to be burned there. But friends helped me, and I survived."
Now, with recent German parliamentary action authorizing payments from a $4.5-billion German government-industry fund to an estimated 1.2 million aging survivors of Nazi forced labor, Dworakowski can expect to receive as much as $6,700 as token compensation for his work and his suffering.
"It all took such a long time that the effect is not the satisfaction one could feel if it had happened earlier," Dworakowski said. "Probably all of us will save the money for our own funerals so as not to be a burden to our families. . . . This compensation is not really a payment for what we went through. This money can only make life a bit easier for some, but the memories will always be with us."
During World War II, the Nazis forced millions of citizens of conquered nations--mainly people of Eastern Europe--to work without pay at concentration camps, factories and farms, often in life-threatening conditions.
Dworakowski said he weighed just 84 pounds when he was freed, that he was suffering from typhus and tuberculosis and that he expected to die. He and his father had been detained together after the 1944 anti-Nazi Warsaw uprising and taken to Dachau, where his father was soon killed, he said.
The fund was created last summer, but payments were delayed for a year by bitter wrangling in U.S. courts tied to German industry's insistence that the payments assure a "legal peace"--and thus block the threat of any further lawsuits over forced-labor issues.
Against this background, most who will be receiving the money show few signs of happiness, gratitude or forgiveness.
Most beneficiaries are non-Jews living in the formerly Communist countries of Eastern Europe. The amounts received will vary according to the conditions in which victims worked and how many end up sharing in the payments.
"I was a prisoner in three concentration camps," said Irena Cwil, 73. "I lost my leg during the war. So what is this money to me? . . . There is so much noise about it. The whole world is talking. This is really funny. And I won't believe it is actually over until I hold the money in my own hands."
The maximum $6,700 payment is a "ridiculous" sum, Cwil added. "I was 16 years old, and I lost my leg. Now I'm 73. I'm still alive, but what kind of a life is it? Those are the feelings of many people."
Cwil said that after the Warsaw uprising, she was taken first to Auschwitz, and later to Buchenwald. She worked 12-hour shifts in a munitions factory and said she still suffers back problems from moving 110-pound bags of bullets.
"Now this is the thanks I get," she said. "And it's as though this is some special favor."
Cwil's injury came just two days before U.S. troops arrived.
"The Germans were evacuating the camp," she recalled. "We were standing at a train station, and suddenly the Allies started bombing a military train. I was wounded. I lost my leg. I'm alive only because I was taken by an ambulance to a hospital, but the [Nazi] SS were going around and killing off those who were wounded."
Despite her bitterness, Cwil indicated that the payment will mark a kind of emotional closure.
"There is this feeling that finally this is the end," she said. "But there is no joy. . . . I think the Germans got away cheap."
While victims seldom raise the point, a few prominent Poles have publicly noted that the payments are coming from a new Germany and a new generation of Germans.
"Better late than never," Roman Catholic Bishop Ignacy Jez, a former Dachau inmate who heads the Committee of Polish Priests-Former Prisoners of Concentration Camps, said in comments quoted by Rzeczpospolita, a leading newspaper. "Money will be useful to them in their old age. I treat the compensation more as a gesture, an effort to pay back something. The gesture is even more beautiful because it is made by the generation of Germans who are not directly responsible for the war and Nazism."
Political leaders have praised the payments as an important step in Polish-German reconciliation.
"I'm happy that the Poles who suffered under the Nazi regime will finally get compensation, although it will never make up for their suffering," said Foreign Minister Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, 79, himself a former Auschwitz inmate.
"We are aware that this is not full compensation, but that is simply not possible," said Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek, who met with representatives of the victims on the day the German parliament gave final approval to the payments.
Stefan Zdzislaw Kozlowski, 78, head of the Polish Union of Former Political Prisoners of Nazi Prisons and Concentration Camps, spent two years working as a carpenter at the Stutthof concentration camp, near what is now Poland's Baltic coast city of Gdansk. The worst thing for him was the constant hunger, he said, adding that he came to the camp in a group of 180 prisoners but that only 11 survived until the end of the war.
His organization will now focus its efforts on helping people fill out the forms and collect the documentation that must be filed by Aug. 11 in order to receive benefits, he said. Most Polish victims already have registered.
"Of course there is no amount of money that could pay adequately for our suffering," Kozlowski added. "It simply is not possible. If you sold half of Germany, it still wouldn't be enough. . . . At least to some extent this is a moral satisfaction."
Holley is a Times staff writer and Kasprzycka a special correspondent.