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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Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."

Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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