The long wait for ghetto pensions | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 20.03.2014
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The long wait for ghetto pensions

Former forced laborers in Jewish ghettos may apply for a pension from the German government. But the procedure is complicated and many applicants never receive anything. The government plans to reform the law.

Avri Steiner works in his studio almost every day. The shelves are crammed with paint pots and brushes. Half-finished oil paintings are propped up against the shelves - but their apocalyptic themes can already be made out. Steiner, an Israeli artist aged 83, has taught himself how to paint. Art serves as a kind of medicine whenever he is overcome by memories of the past.

Steiner spent part of his youth in the Budapest ghetto - and was the only member of his family to survive the Holocaust. One of the reasons why he escaped their fate was the fact that he worked in the ghetto.

"Our work in the ghetto consisted of picking up the corpses," he says. "Most of them were people who had been killed during bomb attacks. We had to either incinerate the corpses, or to pile them up in an orderly fashion. In return, we received some sort of warm water which they called soup." Steiner was 13 years old when German troops invaded Hungary in 1944 and forced the Jewish inhabitants of Budapest into a ghetto.

The law did not reflect the reality

Nowadays, 70 years later, Steiner lives as a senior citizen in a small town close to Tel Aviv. A small pension from the state of Israel enables him to make ends meet. "Because of the war, I could never finish school or learn a trade," he says. For years, he was involved in a legal battle with the German authorities - he wanted official recognition of his work in the ghetto, and that would have meant he would have received an additional pension from Germany.

The German parliament passed the so-called "ghetto pension law" back in 2002. Its purpose was to deal with cases like Steiner's. But it required former forced laborers to go through the same bureaucratic procedures that apply to normal German pensioners. Terms such as "voluntary nature" or " financial compensation" which come up during the application process are hard to deal with. As a result, already in 2002, 90 percent of the applications were rejected, mostly because written proof could not be attached.

"Obviously, my clients cannot provide the required records, documents or witnesses," Nils Johannsen, a Berlin-based solicitor specialized in social legislation, points out. "The Nazi administration had no interest in providing people with documents which could serve as proof of their work. All they wanted was to exploit people."

Cumbersome German bureaucracy

Like many others, Avri Steiner could not deal with German bureaucracy. "I had no clue. I lacked both the money - and the mental power," he says, shrugging his shoulders. That's why he turned to a consulting agency in Tel Aviv specializing in compensation claims of ghetto workers - for which he has to pay.

That consultancy examines the various cases before passing them on to specialized lawyers in Germany. Some of these cases can take years, explains one of the advisors, Yaffa Golan, as she looks at her crammed filing cabinets. Her patience with German bureaucracy is quite exhausted: "Our clients wonder why they have to struggle for their rights over such a long time although they all worked in the ghettos. Why do they have to go through all this selection all over again?"

Avri Steiner's application, submitted in 2003, was only recognized in 2010 - and only after Germany's Federal Social Court decided in 2009 that all ghetto workers had a right to compensation even if their salaries consisted of no more than a piece of bread. But, due to a statute of limitations, retrospective payments could only be handed out for four years - not, as originally intended, from July 1997 onwards. That was the date which the Court had fixed when it pronounced a decision concerning the Lodz ghetto. Avri Steiner now receives a pension of 219.20 euros ($302) from the German pension fund.

Steiner in among his paintings

Avri Steiner now lives as a senior citizen in a small town near Tel Aviv.

The legal hurdles have been known for some time. And now labor minister Andrea Nahles wants to do something to simplify the procedure, after the matter was discussed at the German-Israeli government talks in Tel Aviv at the end of February.

"It's been possible to apply for these pensions since 2002," Nahles told DW, "but unfortunately, too many things had not yet been clarified. German pension law often failed to take people's real needs into consideration." Now the law will finally be changed so that people will be able to receive their pension retrospectively starting from 1997. The new version of the law may be passed as early as this summer.

New law to simplify the procedure

Survivors like Avri Steiner remain skeptical. "We survivors are on average 80 years old," he says. "Fortunately, I do not know how much longer I'll survive. But why do things take so long? It just doesn't make any sense. When you are in your fifties or sixties, there is still a life ahead of you. But why wait until people are already over 80 years old?"

Avri Steiner's only souvenir of his home and his family in Hungary is one single black-and-white photo. It shows him as a child with his mother and father during a family excursion in Budapest. His father died in the ghetto. The last time he saw his mother was at the train station before she was transported to Auschwitz where she was killed. No pension from Germany could ever bring back his lost childhood and his family, but at least, it would be a gesture, says Steiner - even though, for him personally, it would be a gesture that came very late indeed.

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