LOS ANGELES, Sept. 9 (JTA) — While living in central Poland’s Radom ghetto in 1942, Saul Friedman applied for work — and for the next two years cleaned a building and labored in a peat bog for the German army. He earned no money, but received something even more valuable: extra food rations. When the ghetto was liquidated in 1944, Friedman was sent to an Auschwitz satellite camp and then to Mauthausen. After liberation he came to the United States. Friedman and thousands of other survivors in the United States, Israel and elsewhere are entangled in a bureaucratic hassle over a recent German law meant to benefit a little-known class of survivors. The so-called ZRBG law, the German acronym for Payment of Pensions from Employment in a Ghetto, was established two years ago to give German Social Security benefits to those who worked voluntarily, or “at will,” in the ghettos of Eastern Europe. Though the law is well meant and the benefits significant, eligible applicants are facing long delays, a high rejection rate and a bureaucratic process that critics say is highly erratic. Mark Rothman, Holocaust services advocate for the free Bet Tzedek legal services in Los Angeles, reports that among 135 applicants there, 13 have waited for more than a year for an initial response, 47 have been waiting between six months and a year, and all but five of the rest have been rejected. Similarly, an 80 percent rejection rate has been reported from New York and Florida. Following protests by the Claims Conference, Bet Tzedek and a group of U.S. congressional representatives from Los Angeles, German authorities have launched an investigation to determine whether the ghetto pensions law is being interpreted too narrowly and restrictively. “This law was meant to be generous, but if the investigation shows that there has been a hiccup in the implementation, we will take corrective measures,” said Michael Wolff, the German consul for legal affairs in Los Angeles. Wolff noted that a number of applicants appeared to be confused between compensation for forced or slave labor, which is handled under a different law and by a different ministry, and voluntary “at will” ghetto labor, which is administered by the Social Security departments of individual German states. Gideon Taylor, executive vice president of the Claims Conference, said he had encountered two basic difficulties with the ghetto pensions law, one in the way it is administered and another in the way it is written. The case of Friedman, 85, is a good example of the perplexing administrative decisions. While Friedman’s application was turned down, that of his wife, Bella, who worked at the same time in the same ghetto as a seamstress for the Germans, was approved. She has received an $18,000 back payment, and now gets a monthly check for $250 from the German Social Security system. Among the law’s provisions criticized by Taylor, Rothman and Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), is one stipulating that only workers who were older than 14 at the time are now eligible for ghetto pensions. That restriction caused Helen Korb’s application to be turned down. As an eight-year-old in the Mir ghetto, now in Belarus, Korb worked alongside her mother doing cleaning and laundry at a German garrison. “When I was in the ghetto they wouldn’t let me be a child, and now they say I can’t get a pension because I was a child,” Korb said bitterly. The ghetto pension law is the latest chapter in the history of Nazi-era reparations, but it’s not the end of the book. “We are always looking for more liberal interpretations of existing laws,” said Taylor, “and we are now receiving the first allocations from Germany for home care for elderly survivors.” In another Holocaust-related development, three Los Angeles-area survivors suffered a legal setback in their suit against an international commission dealing with wartime insurance claims. The survivors accused the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims of, in effect, serving as a front for the Italian insurance company Assicurazoni Generali to lower or deny claims by survivors or their heirs. The lawsuit was first filed almost a year ago in Los Angeles Superior Court under California’s unfair business practices statute. At the commission’s request, the case was transferred to a federal court due to claimed foreign policy aspects. But a federal judge sent the suit back to Superior Court, where Judge William Highberger ruled last week that the state had no jurisdiction in the case. Attorney William Shernoff, representing survivors Dr. Jack Brauns, Manny Steinberg and Roman Rakover, complained that he was caught in a Catch-22 dilemma between federal and state courts. He said he would take the case to the California Court of Appeals or state Supreme Court. Representing the commission, New York attorney Constantinos Panagopoulos applauded Highberger’s decision, saying it validated his argument that because of international political implications, the case was a matter for the executive branch of the government.
Tom Tugend is JTA's Los Angeles correspondent. A veteran journalist, he also writes for the Jerusalem Post, the Los Angeles Jewish Journal and the London Jewish Chronicle.