Oh, Pioneers!

Only justice can set them free.

When Gerhard and Ursula Maschkowski met at the Deggendorf displaced persons camp in Bavaria soon after liberation, Gert weighed 70 pounds. He had survived not only four years in youth labor camps and two years in Auschwitz, but five months of a Nazi death march through the snow in Poland. Ursula endured two years of “slave labor” in a Siemens factory, followed by two years in Theresienstadt, where only 6 percent of the internees came out alive.

For years, the Maschkowskis told themselves that they were the lucky ones. Though Ursula’s father died in Auschwitz, most of their small family survived.

“We can’t complain,” Ursula likes to say, with a bright, steely smile and a look that pierces through nonsense. She seems as surprised as anyone that her urge toward justice started to rage late in the day.

“I didn’t think much about the past until the Reagan years,” Ursula says. “But during the Iran hostage crisis, when I saw the way America came to the aid of her hostages, I felt something had gone wrong. No one had come to save us.”

I’d stopped by their West Los Angeles home last Saturday, joining their family and friends (most of them fellow survivors) in wishing her and the dapper Gert a happy 50th wedding anniversary. They wanted my help.

In 1993, the Maschkowskis filed a claim against Siemens on behalf of Ursula, seeking compensation for wages owed her not only for her two years of “slave labor” at the company but, specifically, for the work she did the last week before she was transported to Theresienstadt, for which she did not receive any payment.

“It was slave labor,” she says in a calm, firm voice. “They only paid us half the wages we were owed. They waived all the child-labor laws for the Jews. I had to be up at 4 to be at work at 6. Some days, I had to work until 11:30, and walk home in the blackout. I was 15, a child.” She pauses, then repeats: “The last week, we got paid nothing at all.”

The debt is 50 years old, but the wounds are fresh. While the Maschkowskis were pursuing their claim, Siemens beat back a lawsuit for damages filed by another survivor; the court ruled that Jewish workers submitted voluntarily to their labor as a way of postponing transit to the camps.

Soon, insult was added to injury. The company wrote the couple, stating that it had already paid 7 million Deutschmarks to the New York-based Jewish Claims Conference to settle all cases from Jewish “slave laborers.” And the Jewish Claims Conference itself wrote the Maschkowskis, saying, yes, the Siemens money had been received, but it was all spent.

“This agreement was reached in May of 1962,” Saul Kagan, the Conference executive vice president, wrote Gert in August 1993. “The [distribution] program was closed over 20 years ago.”

The Maschkowskis, who knew nothing about the Claims Conference until 1992, are outraged. A little acorn of injustice has grown into a sturdy oak of pain. They have joined an increasingly vocal group of Holocaust survivors who now are focusing their rage on the secret workings of the Claims Conference.

They want to know, how can a reparations program end? Nothing less than a full accounting will satisfy Gert, who says that his efforts to prod the IRS into auditing the Claims Conference have come to nothing.

“We want to know who got the money,” says Gert Maschkowski.

Last week, The Jerusalem Report published an extraordinary investigative report, “Cheated Out of Their Legacy?” raising questions about the business practices of the 44-year-old Claims Conference in regard to properties once owned by Jews in Germany. The Report described the Claims Conference, the very group charged with handling survivor property rights, as suspicious of heirs. It quoted one memo that referred to the claimants as “inheritance chasers.” The Claims Conference operates in secrecy, with no oversight.

All of a sudden, Gert and Ursula’s pursuit doesn’t seem so lonely.

“Nearly all survivors who have contacts with the Conference have been dealt with in a most demeaning and insulting manner,” Leon Stabinsky, co-chair of the Holocaust Child Survivors’ group of Los Angeles, recently wrote The Journal. In January, the group picketed the Jewish Federation Building while Kagan was meeting inside with Los Angeles leaders. The survivors demanded fuller disclosure of Conference operations.

“It’s not the money; it’s the justice,” Ursula tells me. “I would give all the money — it’s probably not more than $5,000, compounding the interest — to the attorney or to Israel. But what’s happening here is wrong.”

Only justice can set them free.

Marlene Adler Marks is editor-at-large of The Jewish Journal. Her e-mail address is wvoice@aol.com.

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