Shoah survivors apply for ‘voluntary’ ghetto work pay

As a teenager in Ukraine, Yakov Margulis worked every day except Saturday from morning until dark. During the summer, he toiled long hours on a farm. In winter, he repaired machinery.

“In exchange for work, they gave me food to eat,” Margulis says.

This lasted from December 1941 to September 1943, when the Nazis confined Margulis to a ghetto in Semikhatka, a village near the city of Mykolaiv. He shared one large room with his parents and some 50 other people. At night, they all slept on a hay-covered floor.

From October 1943 to May 1944, Margulis worked for a construction company at a nearby port, manually loading and unloading barges. Again, he was lured by the promise only of food.

Now, more than 60 years later, Margulis hopes to be paid money for all that work.

Margulis, 82, sits in the library of Bet Tzedek, the nonprofit legal services agency that has taken on the job of helping Holocaust survivors apply for compensation under a new Ghetto Work Payment Program. Established by an executive order of the German federal government issued Oct. 1, 2007, the program is granting a one-time payment of 2,000 Euros (about $3,000) to survivors who worked “voluntarily” in a ghetto under German control.

On this morning, nine survivors are paired with volunteer attorneys from the Los Angeles law firm of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher. Margulis sits with lawyer Farshad MorÃ(c).

“What kind of work did you perform?” MorÃ(c) asks.

“Agriculture,” he replies. “Tractor. Combine.”

Margulis talks slowly, taking his glasses on and off. Having emigrated from Odessa, Ukraine to Los Angeles in 1990, he speaks in heavily accented English.

The details are vague, and Margulis relates them matter-of-factly. He becomes visibly agitated only once, when he says, “My first job was removing dead bodies from huts in the village.”

He explains that fellow Jews asked him and other strong, younger men to perform this work. He quickly changes the subject.

MorÃ(c) gently pushes Margulies to tell more about his work for the Nazis. It is imperative to get an accurate accounting and to show that the work was “voluntary.”

This is the seventh clinic Bet Tzedek has run for the Ghetto Work Payment Program. More than 100 applications have been processed, and Bet Tzedek deputy litigation director Wendy Marantz Levine estimates that the agency could file 500 or more applications for eligible survivors living in Los Angeles. To date, 20 clinics have been scheduled, and the German government has not set a deadline.

“Bet Tzedek is committed to processing all eligible survivors, even visiting homebound clients when necessary,” Levine said.

Each claim takes two to three hours to fill out, and Bet Tzedek relies on volunteers, mostly attorneys from Los Angeles law firms. About eight firms are participating in the process, including Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher; Latham & Watkins; Manatt, Phelps & Phillips; O’Melveny & Myers, and Strook & Strook & Lavan on multiple dates. Additionally, in-house attorneys from such companies as Countrywide have signed up.

In the daylong clinics, attorneys generally see one survivor in the morning and another in the afternoon. All survivors are prescreened by Bet Tzedek staff and given specific appointment dates. Prior to the survivors’ arrival, the attorneys attend a one-hour training session for which they receive MCLE (minimum continuing legal education) credit.

Conducted by Bet Tzedek Holocaust Services attorney Volker Schmidt, who is licensed to practice law in both California and Germany, the session provides an overview of German-created Jewish ghettos, prior reparations programs, the German legal system and detailed instructions on how to process the new applications.

The new program was created to fix problems associated with the former ghetto payment program, commonly known as ZRBG, a German acronym for Payment of Pensions From Employment in a Ghetto. That was established in 2002, a result of a German court ruling requiring that people who worked in ghettos be paid. It stipulated, however, that the work be both “voluntarily” and “for pay.” The two criteria, given the circumstances, were difficult to prove, and Germany turned down more than 87 percent of all ZRBG applications.

Under pressure from the United States and Israel, the German government created the new Ghetto Work Payment Program, in which the “for pay” requirement has been abolished. Still, the definition of “voluntary” work is unclear.

Schmidt explains to the attorneys that ghetto life was controlled by the Germans, with Judenrat — Jewish councils — often overseeing day-to-day life. Employment included such jobs as snow shoveling, food production, road repair or anything necessary to keep the city functioning.

“Voluntary means that the survivor had some choice or influence under how the work was performed or how the work came about,” Schmidt says.

For example, the survivor may have worked because he wanted extra food or lodging.

Schmidt also cautions that obtaining the information from survivors, who are elderly and often contending with medical issues, is often not easy or straightforward. He points to the boxes of tissues on each of the three long conference tables and tells the attorneys to let the survivors relate their entire story and to take as many breaks as necessary.

“We are asking the survivors to relive some of the most horrific events in their lives,” he says. “Many saw their parents and siblings taken to the gas chambers.”

But despite its painful nature, the experience is valuable for the attorneys.

“I don’t get that many opportunities to do something meaningful,” says MorÃ(c), a real estate attorney who also participated in Bet Tzedek’s Hungarian reparations clinics in 2006.

The Ghetto Work Payment Program is the first new German reparations program in years, and, according to Bet Tzedek Holocaust Services attorney Lisa Hoffman, “This might be one of the last.”

Hoffman emphasizes that time is critical, as the number of survivors diminishes daily. To prove her point, she says that in the few weeks’ time between the prescreening and the clinic, one survivor died. And only the day before this clinic, another survivor suffered a heart attack.