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Holocaust Survivors In Standoff With German Government Over Reparations

Workers in one of the clothing workshops in the Lodz ghetto
Workers in one of the clothing workshops in the Lodz ghetto
Kristian Frigelj

BERLIN - Uri Chanoch has sent a statement to the Committee on Labor and Social Affairs of the German Parliament reminding them of the historic significance of the task they now face.

The 12 members of the Committee are debating whether to make an amendment to the Ghetto Pensions law. The law, enacted in 2002 and based on court decisions from 1997, grants pensions for “voluntary and remunerated work in ghettos located in territories occupied or annexed by the Nazis.”

The Social Democrat (SPD), Green and Left parties have all made motions for the law to be revised so that payments can be backdated to 1997, and that all survivors receive what they are entitled to.

Chanoch is the deputy chairman of the Holocaust Survivors’ Center in Israel. "For me and every other ghetto survivor, recognition for the work we did in the ghetto would mean that this aspect of history has also finally been acknowledged and will be taken into account in both compensation and social legislation."

The 84-year-old is a Holocaust survivor. In 1941 he was deported to the Kaunas ghetto, then moved to the Stutthof concentration camp, in Poland, and finally to the Landsberg/Kaufering labor camp in Dachau. His grandparents, parents and sister were murdered by the Nazis in Auschwitz and Stutthof.

The 2002 Ghetto Pensions for Work in Ghettos (ZRBG) law, Chanoch continues, was an "important step" in the process of coming to terms with Nazi crimes. But only if back payments are made from 1997 to all surviving former ghetto workers “will the original and clear intention of the law finally be realized."

The ZRBG pension is retroactive to 1997, however, the German National Pension Fund – basing itself on an exceedingly strict interpretation of what defines “voluntary” and “remuneration” – announced that it would only backdate the payments to Jan. 2005. In Feb. 2012, Germany’s Federal Social Court backed the National Pension Fund’s position.

Berlin lawyer Simona Reppenhagen, who filed an appeal with Germany’s Constitutional Court, says: "In Feb. 2012, the Federal Social Court allowed the National Pension Fund to enrich itself at the expense of Holocaust victims."

The pressure on the Labor and Social Committee of the German Parliament is enormous, as the claimants are aged and are demanding a swift revision of the ZRBG law. Should the revision drag on, Holocaust survivors in the United States are considering taking drastic action: "I’m preparing a suit against the National Pension Fund in U.S. courts," Reppenhagen told Die Welt.

U.S. lawsuit

She is in contact with New York colleagues and says she will withdraw her suit if there is progress with the revision. She warns that the revision has to have been effected before the 2013 parliamentary elections.

If a U.S. court accepts to hear the case, this will represent more than an international image problem for Germany – stirring up questions about Germany’s will to effect reparations and whether or not the ghetto pension issue has been fairly dealt with.

Reppenhagen is representing about 3,000 clients, each claiming a full ghetto pension. She has for years criticized the National Pension Fund and the administration of justice – and indeed the situation reveals how slowly things have evolved over the decades.

In 1997, the Federal Social Court reached a benchmark decision regarding the Lodz ghetto, finding that ghetto labor was not only forced, that there had also been voluntary and paid jobs too, and that they were all entitled to pension rights. In 2002, the ZRBG law guaranteed the right to a pension for those who had obtained remuneration for their work in the ghetto.

In another benchmark decision, in 2009 the Federal Social Court defined what was meant by “remuneration” and stated that food or other benefits could be considered as remuneration.

The National Pension Fund faces considerable criticism in this matter. According to the views of court-invited experts, of which Die Welt has acquired transcripts, there were considerable omissions and deficiencies in the way ghetto pension claims were dealt with.

"What has been established is that in dealing with the ghetto pension issue, the National Pension Fund misjudged both real and legal conditions of the ghetto – culpably," said Jan-Robert von Renesse, a judge at the Higher Social Court in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia. He was the first judge to call for expert input on ghetto working conditions and to get personal testimony from survivors in Israel.

The judge repeatedly criticized the way the National Pension Fund had dealt with the ghetto survivors’ claims. "The mistakes could have been avoided if the National Pension Fund had given more careful attention to this – particularly if they had collected personal accounts and conducted historical research. In fact, they were legally obliged to do this." In the state of North Rhine-Westphalia alone, of 10,000 cases only in 150 of them were claimants heard in person.

Historian Stephan Lehnstaedt has been researching ghetto labor for years and supports this criticism. Until 2009, both the National Pension Fund and the social courts "largely ignored" the historical facts, "building a layperson’s version of historical reality that did not reflect the facts.”

Officially the German government has continually supported a pro-reparation stance. But at the bureaucratic level, this is not the case. Die Welt has had exclusive access to a confidential seven-page document dated June 16, 2009, written after a meeting about ghetto pensions at the Ministry of Finance with then Finance Minister Peer Steinbrück, that concludes: “Minister Steinbrück has given instructions to pay strict attention to limiting the financial repercussions” of the issue.

Questioned about the document, the ministry responded that it was just a memo, a reconstruction of what may have actually been said.

The Federal Pension Fund opposes a change to the law and warns that the ensuing administrative upheaval such a change would bring about would slow down payments.

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