NEW YORK (Jan. 7)
After more than five decades, a window of opportunity opened for Holocaust survivor Edith Golden.
Then, quickly, the window shut again.
As a result of a 1995 U.S. court ruling, which awarded Hugo Princz and 10 other Americans imprisoned by the Nazis in concentration camps some $2.1 million, Golden figured that she, too, would finally receive some compensation for her and her family’s sufferings during World War II, when they endured the worst pogrom in Romania’s history.
As part of the Princz settlement, the U.S. government established the Holocaust Claims Program, which allowed American citizens who suffered at the hands of the Nazis to file for restitution.
The State Department recently sent letters to those individuals whose claims were approved — and Germany has promised it will make payments before the end of the year.
Roughly 230 people have been accepted, according to Steven Perles, a lawyer who represents Holocaust survivors seeking claims.
While the State Department, under an agreement with Germany, cannot reveal the number of survivors or the amount of money they are expected to receive, one thing is clear: Edith Golden will not be among them.
In August 1997, despite the sympathetic audience she had received when she testified that June in front of the U.S. Justice Department’s Foreign Claims Settlement Commission, Golden was denied compensation because she was not in a concentration camp or ghetto during the war. Unless a new law is passed, it is unlikely that she and her sister will ever receive compensation.
In addition to dramatizing the frustration faced by a Holocaust survivor who wants compensation for the suffering that she and her family endured during World War II, Golden’s case sheds light on the difficulties that can arise when distinctions are drawn between levels of suffering — even when the countries involved appear to be making a good-faith effort to provide compensation.
Golden was born in Iasi, Romania, in 1928. Her father, Joseph Hirsch, who was born in Romania, moved to the United States as a young boy to join his brother. After serving in the U.S. Navy in World War I, he returned to his native land for a visit — and married a local woman.
Golden remembers that her father wanted to return to the United States, but the Great Depression kept him away.
Meanwhile, anti-Semitism began to spread across Romania. Golden remembers demonstrations and beatings on the streets, curfews and separate air raid shelters for Jews.
These segregated bunkers became significant on June 29, 1941. As Golden remembers it:
“They called a false air raid and we went to the shelter. No sooner did we get there than some Germans came and pulled us out of the shelter and began shouting at us and poking at us with bayonets.”
Golden and her family — her older sister, Beatrice, in addition to her mother, Rebecca, and father — were lined up with Jews from across the town and marched to the police courtyard.
On the way there, Golden says, her mother was beaten to paralysis and her father’s head split open with the butt of a rifle. In the courtyard, they were forced to lie three people on top of each other while German officers and Romanians shot at them from the roof of the police station.
After several hours, the men were taken off and put in cattle cars. Golden never saw her father again.
Golden’s father was among an estimated 13,000 Jews who died in the Iasi pogrom, according to Radu Ioanid, a historian who specializes in the Holocaust in Romania.
“This was one of the major, major killing operations in World War II,” said Ioanid, the associate director of the international programs division at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
For the next three years, Golden, her sister and mother lived a story that is made no less disturbing by its familiarity. Able, like many Romanian Jews, to return to their apartment, they were forced to sell most of their possessions – - including her mother’s gold teeth — to buy the food necessary to survive.
“A glass of milk was a treat,” she remembers.
At night, when the German soldiers made their roundups, she and her sister hid in a nearby garbage container.
By the time the town was liberated by the Soviet army in 1944, Golden suffered from severe rashes and malnutrition, and she had lost most of her teeth.
After her mother died at the end of the war, she and her sister, now teen- agers, made their way to New York with the help of an uncle.
Once in the United States, Golden cobbled together a life. She earned her high school degree and met her future husband, Al, who had been an American serviceman during the war. They married in 1949 and have two children.
She worked at several jobs, retiring in 1989 from the U.S. Postal Service.
But her harrowing wartime experiences have stayed with the diminutive Golden.
She says she has nightmares at least once a week.
“To this day,” she says, nervously ripping her napkin into shreds during a conversation last year at a Brooklyn diner, “I still have the urge to hide when I hear a siren.”
And she’s never given up her battle to receive compensation. Soon after the war, she applied to the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany. Since her father had served in the military, she tried the Veterans Administration — to no avail.
She’s also written to several senators and members of Congress.
But after the decision in the Princz case was announced, she called William Marks, a Washington lawyer and one of Princz’s attorneys. Marks agreed to represent Golden, her sister and a friend who has since passed away.
The three were among the more than 2,000 people who presented their cases in front of the Justice Department commission — in addition to former survivors, American soldiers who had been imprisoned in German prisoner-of-war camps were eligible to apply.
In order to receive compensation, Golden believed she had to prove two things: that she was an American citizen during the war, and that she had experienced suffering at the hands of the Nazis.
There is no question that Golden was a citizen, and in two days of testimony before the commission in Washington, she left no doubt of her suffering.
“Claimant’s ordeal was harrowing and left her scarred for life,” the commission wrote in its decision.
Marks, who argued Golden’s case, says the commission “showed remarkable sensitivity.”
But Golden’s claim was turned down because the commission had ruled in a 1997 “Final Decision” that only those American citizens who suffered in a concentration camp or subcamp, forced labor march or were interned in a ghetto or camp in the region of Transnistria were eligible for moneys from the Holocaust Claims Program.
Legally, there appears to be little in the way of a counterclaim: The commission’s findings fit the letter of the law.
But, says loanid, there were no ghettos in most of Romania. In other words, Golden’s bid for compensation was turned down because of the Nazis’ policy in the region where she lived, not on the basis of how much she suffered.
As Golden puts it: “What’s the difference where they beat you? What’s the difference where they starved you? What’s the difference where they shot at you?”