Holocaust survivors win modest pensions

“Anything from Germany today?”

That’s the question Jeffrey Kobulnick, a senior associate in the Los Angeles legal office of Foley & Lardner, asks his assistant almost every day.

Kobulnick isn’t servicing the legal needs of some particularly demanding corporate client in Frankfurt. An intellectual property attorney, he’s asking whether there’s mail related to any one of the dozens of applications submitted on behalf of Holocaust survivors to the German social insurance agency office by his firm.

The letters Kobulnick, his colleagues and their clients are waiting for relate to a German national pension that began being awarded in 2009 to Jews for work they did in Nazi-controlled ghettoes during World War II. Kobulnick, 34, confessed to feeling a bit like a high school senior waiting for letters from colleges, always hoping for big envelopes.

“If I get a big, thick packet, that means it’s a 20-page detailed calculation award letter telling me how much the client’s getting,” Kobulnick said. “It calculates it very specifically, how much money they’re entitled to for each day they were in a ghetto. If you get a smaller letter, it says we need more information. So you want those big envelopes from Germany.”

Since 2009, scenes like this one have been playing out in law offices around Los Angeles and across the country, as attorneys participating in the Holocaust Survivors Justice Network (HSJN) have been successfully shepherding hundreds of applications for ZRBG “Ghetto Pensions” through German bureaucracies on behalf of Holocaust survivors.

The nationwide effort, led by two attorneys at Bet Tzedek, the Los Angeles-based nonprofit legal-aid agency, has involved 1,800 lawyers, law students and paralegals who have worked a combined 56,000 pro bono hours on these applications, making sure that each “t” is crossed and every umlaut is double-dotted. (Though most of the forms are bilingual, there are still occasional pieces of correspondence written only in German. More than one attorney said he’d gotten very good with the Google Translate Web application.)

Every Friday, Volker Schmidt, a Bet Tzedek attorney, holds a conference call that draws lawyers from all over the country to talk about — or simply hear about — the progress and problems facing their clients’ claims. “You feel like you’re part of this movement,” said Lauren Teukolsky, Bet Tzedek’s pro bono director and the other staff member coordinating the effort.

“Attorneys are really moved by it,” Schmidt said, in part because for many lawyers this is their first encounter with a Holocaust survivor. And further, this kind of pro bono work allows lawyers to engage in ways that they don’t get to on a day-to-day basis.

“You can work for a big company, and if you win, that’s great and there’s money. And if you lose, it’s a tax write-off,” the German-born-and-raised Schmidt said dryly, in his very lightly accented English. “But when you’re working with a Holocaust survivor, it’s a human being.”

Bet Tzedek estimates that the pro bono legal work done by attorneys and staff at top firms is worth about $16.8 million, a sum more than twice the $7.5 million annual budget of the 25-lawyer agency.

The actual cash amounts paid out to individual survivors have so far been modest. While Bet Tzedek estimates that, collectively, ZRBG pension payments to Holocaust survivors could amount to as much as $2 billion, a typical payment to a survivor who qualifies for a ZRBG pension will be between $150-$450 per month.

Some awards are even smaller. “We’ve seen some disconcerting awards out of Germany of just a few euros a month, which is, hopefully, an aberration,” said Aaron Spiwak, an associate at O’Melveny & Myers, who is one of two pro bono coordinators of HSJN.

And yet advocates say that even relatively small amounts of money can make big differences in the lives of aging Holocaust survivors. “Those are our clients,” said Susie Forer-Dehrey, chief operating officer of Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles (JFS). “If they can get money for the survivors, it’s very important. Anything that we can capture for them helps.”

The story of how the ZRBG pension came into its current form is circuitous and involves restrictive German agencies, an executive order from the German chancellor and a number of decisions by the country’s courts.

But the program is based on one simple underlying principle: The labor of Jews working in ghettos in countries occupied or annexed by the Nazis had monetary worth. Had they been paid, they would have also been paying into the German social security-type pension system. In 1997, a German court announced that, despite the fact that Jews working in ghettos were not paid for their work (and so did not pay into the pension fund), they are today entitled to receive the benefit.

Sixty-six years after the end of World War II, nobody can say exactly how many survivors live worldwide. Elan Steinberg of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors estimates that around 120,000 are living in the United States today, with the largest clusters of survivors located in and around New York, Miami and Los Angeles.

Forer-Dehrey said that JFS, which has been serving Holocaust survivors for 25 years, is now attracting a new batch of clients. “There’s a whole other group that we haven’t met, because they haven’t needed our services, that are now walking through our doors,” she said.

Though most survivors are learning about the ZRBG pensions from organizations like JFS, the word is spreading in other ways. Jerry Sheehan is an attorney in the New York office of Manatt, Phelps & Phillips who specializes in insurance regulation and has personally filed a large number — in the “high 20s” — of ZRBG applications. Like many of those involved in the project, he has also trained other lawyers how to do this work.

Sheehan said he once met a potential applicant who brought one of her friends, another survivor, with her to the meeting. The first client had brought it up during a card game, Sheehan said, and the second would-be client took note. “She said, ‘Well, gee, maybe I’ll show up at the same time, and they’ll take me.’ And we did, naturally,” Sheehan said.

Each ZRBG pension means something different to each survivor. “In some cases, it helps them not have to choose between buying food and filling their prescriptions,” Kobulnick said. “In other cases, it helps them provide a gift for a grandchild.”

The clients are understandably grateful. “I get very nice letters, phone calls and voicemail messages from clients quite regularly when they get these results,” Kobulnick said.

But the lawyers are appreciative as well. David Lash, who ran Bet Tzedek for nine years before moving to O’Melveny & Myers to run the firm’s national pro-bono program, said that the lawyers he speaks with — Jewish and non-Jewish — are just as enthusiastic about their experiences working with the Holocaust-survivor clients.

“The responses I have gotten from the lawyers who have taken on clients in this project have almost unanimously been to the effect that this is the most emotionally rewarding and compelling thing that they have done as lawyers,” Lash said.

Your Letters

Federation Pension

Reading the article, “Federation Faces Underfunded Pension,” in your July 30 issue, I found it to be needlessly alarmist and selective in providing facts on a highly complex subject. Most disturbing is the inaccurate lead. The Federation is absolutely not directing funds away from social services to fund its pension.

Pension policy within The Federation system is guided by professional actuarial opinions. The Jewish Federation is fortunate to have a lay retirement committee made up of experienced volunteers, including those who are well-versed in investments, actuarial science and pension plan management.

The article presents a misleading picture by comparing the L.A. experience to the plans at other selected federations. Comparing the financing of defined-benefit plans to defined-contribution plans is like comparing apples to oranges

For example, the Atlanta plan covers 60 employees. Boston has not had a defined-benefit plan since 1992. Even those federations with defined-benefit plans represented in the article and charts cover only direct federation employees and in smaller Jewish communities. On the other hand, the L.A. plan covers almost 1,000 current members, of which less than 20 percent are Federation employees. Many of the non-Federation employees’ salaries are funded by third-party sources, including public funding, not through the United Jewish Fund.

Federation and its affiliated agencies are well aware of the need for cost control. This is reflected in our annual balanced budget. By the same token, we all offer human services. High-quality human service programs are a function of recruiting and maintaining quality personnel. Personnel costs normally reflect 80 percent of the costs at human service agencies.

Using limited community resources allowed the community to avoid further reductions in program staff and to ensure that the best and brightest staff remained during the horrible recession of 1992-1993. No organization was ever forced to close services or avoid expansion of their programs to their participation in The Federation pension plan. It is a major distortion to suggest this.

Obviously, no one disagrees that it is urgent to examine the future philosophy and benefit structure of the pension plan. That is why Federation, on behalf of itself and its agencies, has put a proposal on the table in negotiations with the union to move to a defined-contribution plan for new employees.

I wonder if The Journal did more to confuse the public on a tremendously complex issue through its selective reporting and innuendo in the article.

John Fishel, President The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles

Faith and Folly

I am a physician and a clinical professor of pediatrics at Loma Linda University who, like Rob Eshman, maintains a firm belief in the merits of stem cell research (“Faith and Folly,” July 30).

Stem cell research will continue regardless of President Bush’s current position, since the companies involved are multinational and research will be conducted abroad until the issue is sorted out in the United States. Some will move their labs to locations where they can carry out this most-needed research.

The United States is not the only country involved in this area. Validated discoveries, which translate into new cures, will be available to the world.

The research will get done. But even if that was not the case, is this the most pressing issue before us today?

I was also an elected delegate to the 2000 Democratic National Convention, but since Sept. 11, I am relieved that my opinion was not persuasive.

I believe the war on terror is the most important issue facing our country today.

I disagree with Eshman’s statement that, with regard to Israel, “most Jews would be hard-pressed to find a lot of light between the president’s position and John Kerry’s.”

Bush has a proven record of action, denying the so-called “right of return,” supporting the isolation of Yasser Arafat, supporting Israel’s right of self-defense, etc.

Politicians can say anything and not be held accountable for broken promises. Kerry — who feels so strongly about appeasing France, the European Union and the United Nations, who refuse to support Israel and sanction only Israel in a world full of corruption and inhumanity — cannot be relied upon to defend Israel to the degree that the Bush administration has demonstrated.

There was no mention of Israel in Kerry’s speech at the Democratic Convention.

Dr. Charles J. Hyman, Redlands

Contrary to Rob Eshman’s argument, stem cell research will not be the key deciding factor for the Jewish vote in the upcoming election. It would serve the readers well to be informed that stem cell research is still in its infancy.

President Bush is the first president to provide the federal funds for it, while at the same time limiting such funding, pending review of the relevant issues involved.

Dr. Ron Saldra, Founding Member Beverly Hills Jewish Republicans


Our cover story “Rebirth in Russia”(Aug. 6), neglected to state that the writer’s trip was sponsored by Chabad, whose activities were largely the subject of the story as well. The Journal’s policy is to always disclose such relationships. We regret the omission.