World War II Compensation Ghetto Laborers Still Waiting for German Pensions

Germany approved the requisite legislation back in 2002, but many of those who worked in Jewish ghettos during World War II are still waiting for their pensions. Indeed, up to 90 percent of applicants have been rejected. Now, though, a new reading of the law could break the logjam, and cost Berlin up to 2 billion euros.
Children in the Lodz ghetto during World War II.

Children in the Lodz ghetto during World War II.

Foto: obs/ Jüdisches Museum Frankfurt

Abraham Leibenson, born in 1925, was a construction worker from the Lithuanian city of Radviliskis who was imprisoned in the Stutthof and Dachau concentration camps during World War II. His entire family perished in the Holocaust. Leibenson later moved to the Israeli city of Bat Yam, just south of Tel Aviv. He suffered from heart trouble and had very little money.

In the summer of 2002, Leibenson heard about a new law that had been passed by the German parliament. It promised a modest pension to Jews who had worked a regular job in the Nazi ghettos. Leibenson had been employed in a number of positions in the ghetto of the city of Siauliai, working in agriculture, railway construction and at a nearby airfield.

He submitted an application to the appropriate authority, the regional German state pension agency in Düsseldorf -- and received a rejection notice. He filed a complaint with the Social Court in Düsseldorf -- and lost. He appealed to the State Social Court in Essen -- and lost again. Finally, he lodged an appeal with the Federal Social Court in Kassel. That was last year.

On Feb. 18, 2010, Abraham Leibenson died at the age of 84 without receiving a cent from the German state pension scheme. "He was extremely disappointed," says his widow, Ettel Leibenson, "but that's probably their policy -- to wait long enough for them all to die, so it costs as little as possible."

Over 90 Percent Denied

Germany's so-called Ghetto Pension Law (ZRBG) was designed as an unbureaucratic and swift measure to close a gap in the country's Nazi-era compensation -- at least that's what proponents of the bill intended in 2002. But the opposite has occurred. State pension agencies have denied over 90 percent of the roughly 70,000 applications submitted to date. "Every day 30 to 35 survivors die," an Israeli government delegation told representatives of the German Ministry of Social Affairs last Wednesday. Nearly half of the applicants live in Israel.

Government insurance bureaucrats and judges in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia are largely to blame for the high rejection rates. They have been assigned the cases of claimants living in Israel. When in doubt, they interpret the law in a way detrimental to the survivors. Even though the law refers to "remuneration" rather than salary, applicants have been rejected if, for example, they received food stamps for their work. Officials have also cast doubt on whether they worked "of their own free will," as it is formulated in the law. Many applicants have been erroneously classified as forced laborers, although lawmakers in Berlin very deliberately separated the current legislation from forced laborer compensation.

Historians were rarely consulted at the outset. State pension officials and judges preferred to rely on superficial reference works, like the Internet encyclopedia Wikipedia, as a basis for their decisions. In many cases, they even maintained that there had been no ghetto in the city in question. They often relied on a database maintained by the Karl Ernst Osthaus Museum, located in the western German town of Hagen. The museum documents just 400 ghettos in Eastern Europe -- but the Russian historian Ilya Altman has counted 800 ghettos in just the region encompassing the former Soviet Union.

The rulings reached by the retirement insurance authorities and the judges are "in most cases poorly substantiated or totally unsubstantiated," Stephan Lehnstaedt, of the German Historical Institute in Warsaw, wrote in a report. They "demonstrate the lack of a qualified approach to scientific literature and historical sources, even an appalling ignorance at times."

Inappropriate Questioning

Since most of the applicants are elderly and living outside Germany, their life stories were initially checked using only questionnaires. Judge Jan-Robert von Renesse, 43, from the state social court in Essen, felt that this type of questioning was inappropriate, and he traveled to Israel to meet personally with the survivors. This was the first time that a German judge had conducted official business on Israeli territory. Afterwards, many claimants won their cases.

A number of von Renesse's colleagues felt offended that doubt was cast on their previous work. But Kristin Platt, a German sociologist who was appointed as a court expert at von Renesse's request, went on record as saying that questionnaires are an "unsuitable tool for clarification of facts." Judge von Renesse was prohibited by his superiors from making such requests in the future.

Von Renesse also asked Wolfgang Benz, the head of the Berlin-based Center for Research on Anti-Semitism, to advise him on the analysis of testimony provided by ghetto survivors. The Holocaust expert noted that the court rejection of pensions had already attracted attention in the right-wing scene. Neo-Nazis had praised German judges for having exposed Jewish Holocaust survivors as "liars."

The judge commissioned a large number of historians to pore through archives in Eastern Europe and research the living conditions in specific ghettos. Retirement insurance officials as well as judges erroneously acted on the assumption that the history of Germany's persecution of the Jews had been sufficiently researched, wrote the Hamburg-based history professor Frank Golczewski. "Just as DNA analysis has recently made it possible to clear up previously unsolvable cases in criminology, the tapping of new historical sources allows for verdicts diverging from earlier judgements."

Parsimonious Berlin

In June 2009, a series of hearings and expert reports prompted the German Federal Social Court to reject the established case law in this area. It found that payment in the form of food stamps or food should be accepted as meeting the law's "remuneration" standard. The judges said that a strict application of German pension law did not accurately reflect the actual living conditions in the ghettos.

But what does that mean for those applicants who were rejected prior to that finding? In August, the North Rhine-Westphalia Labor Ministry asked the state body which oversees pensions to look into the question. Eight months after the ruling, an answer has still not been found.

Part of the reason that this major chapter in Germany's Holocaust compensation efforts still hasn't been brought to a close can be pinned on the parsimonious ways of Germany's federal government. Two and a half years ago, German Chancellor Angela Merkel made a half-hearted attempt to solve the problem. She proposed that every ghetto survivor receive a one-time symbolic payment of €2,000 -- a plan which would have cost the German government €75 million. "They must have forgotten a zero," commented an adviser to the Israeli prime minister dryly. Indeed, some of those with a right to a pension can expect up to €80,000.

In addition, despite her stated friendship with Israel, Merkel was reluctant to become involved in the process out of fear of violating judicial independence. After the court reversed direction, however, she told the Finance Ministry to withdraw its budgetary concerns. Last week, Israeli government representatives were told by both Finance Ministry officials and German pension scheme executives that Berlin faced an exceedingly tight budget. But they were also told that an agreement was near.

At Gunpoint

Next Thursday, the German government and the pension administration plan to finally decide how they will implement the ruling. Survivors will reportedly be offered a four-year retroactive pension payment. According to internal calculations, this will cost Germany's pension administration an estimated €500 million ($680 million). A plan proposed by various judges two years ago would not have been much more expensive, but was rejected at the time.

Still, the conflict is by no means over. Those who submitted their application by the June 30, 2003 deadline are retroactively entitled by law to a pension dating back to 1997. This could cost the state up to €2 billion.

Many of the victims' legal representatives will advise their clients to accept the four-year payment and then sue for the full amount. "This is not about a goodwill gesture," says Simona Reppenhagen, an attorney for the victims. "The survivors worked hard for their pensions."

Sure enough, millions of Reichsmarks flowed into German state pension funds during World War II. Nazi officials also had no qualms about personally collecting pension contributions -- often at gunpoint.

Translated from the German by Paul Cohen

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