A 13-year-old boy escaped from Kiev with his mother and younger sister, shuttling from basements to barns and sometimes the forest, where they often stayed for weeks.
These tales were among thousands of similar accounts given in the name of elderly immigrants who were seeking reparations from the German government through a fund established to provide help to survivors of Nazi persecution.
But many of the stories were works of fiction or embellishment of facts, perpetrated by a group that included six employees and custodians of the fund, which is based in New York, federal prosecutors said on Tuesday. Eleven other defendants were outsiders who recruited and funneled applicants to the programs.
Over 16 years, the suspects used fake identification documents, doctored government records and a knowledge of Holocaust history to defraud the fund of more than $42 million, according to an indictment unsealed Tuesday by the United States attorney in Manhattan, Preet Bharara.
The defendants, the indictment says, would recruit applicants -- many of them from Brighton Beach, Brooklyn -- through Russian-language newspapers, offering help to people applying for compensation from the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany. In many cases, the immigrants' actual experiences would be manipulated or tailored to fit the requirements of the fund; once the payments were approved, the defendants would receive kickbacks from the applicants, according to the indictment.
Birth dates were changed so people would appear to have been alive during World War II; anecdotes about surviving inhumane conditions in a Nazi-occupied territory were repeated in multiple applications; photos of certain applicants were reused on dozens of unrelated applications.
The conspiracy was directed at two programs run by the claims conference. The conference was established in 1951 to compensate Jewish victims of Nazi persecution; the German government appropriated money for the conference the following year, and has been financing it since.
One of the programs, known as the Hardship Fund, pays reparations to Jews who became refugees when they fled the Nazis; the majority of payments from the Hardship Fund went to people from the former Soviet Bloc countries who were had not under direct Nazi occupation, but who fled to escape the Nazi advance, according to the indictment. The fund pays a one-time payment of approximately $3,600.
The second program, called the Article 2 Fund, compensates survivors who lived in hiding, under a false identity, in a Jewish ghetto, or who were incarcerated in a labor or a concentration camp. This program provides monthly payments of approximately $411 to survivors who make less than $16,000 per year.
"The alleged fraud is as substantial as it is galling," Mr. Bharara said at a news conference announcing the indictment. The charges followed a yearlong investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. FBI agents arrested 11 of the defendants Tuesday morning; 5 were previously charged.
The suspects are each accused of playing a role in creating, filing and processing fraudulent claims on behalf of applicants who should not have qualified for compensation. Semen Domnitser, who was the director of the Hardship and Article 2 Funds until he was fired on February 3, was accused of being the leader. At the fund, his responsibilities included reviewing all applications for approval before they were sent to Germany.
The claims conference became suspicious when employees noticed two applications that came in within two weeks that had remarkably similar facts, said Gregory Schneider, the executive vice president of the organization. They began to look for patterns and, after finding other problems, alerted the FBI in December 2009.
To date, investigators have found nearly 5,000 false applications from 2000 through 2009 to the Hardship Fund, resulting in a loss of about $18 million. They have found 658 fraudulent applications to the second fund, from 1993 to 2009, with losses of about $24.5 million.
Mr. Schneider said the theft amounted to less than 1 percent of the claims filed since the two programs' inception. He said his organization had processed 630,000 applications for the two programs over the last two decades. He said he suspected that the nearly 6,000 people involved in the false claims were a mix of those who were aware they were committing fraud and those who may have been used.
When Mr. Bharara was asked whether the thousands of others involved in the fraud could be charged, he said, "the investigation remains open."
In the example of the 11-year-old girl who crossed the Dnieper River, her application included a government document from the Soviet Union where the dates and location of her primary schooling had been changed to make it appear that she was in hiding then. The document also falsely omitted the existence of a brother and said that her mother had died, so operators of the program could not check her claims.
The man who submitted paperwork detailing his suffering as a 13-year-old used forged government documents to show he went to primary school in Kiev, when in fact he studied in Leningrad, which was never occupied.
Although the fund's offices are in Midtown, much of the criminal activity was in Brighton Beach, known as Little Odessa because of the community's large number of Ukrainian immigrants.
Dora Grande, who runs a business near Brighton 12th Street, created false identification documents that were submitted in many of the fraudulent applications, according to the indictment. Valentina Romashova, who lived in Brighton Beach, worked at a law firm that placed advertisements in Russian-language newspapers.
At the luxurious beachfront complex where Ms. Romashova lives, a neighbor, Victor Kason, 85, recalled his own youth during World War II. He said he was 14 when he was moved to a ghetto in Lodz, Poland. He and his parents were then moved to concentration camps; he survived, but his parents did not.
"They committed a crime," Mr. Kason said of the defendants, adding that he did not know Ms. Romashova. "Let them pay."