Ghetto Laborers Still Waiting for German Pensions
Abraham Leibenson, born in 1925, was a construction worker from the Lithuanian city of Radviliskis who was imprisoned in the Stutthof and Dachau concentration camps during World War II. His entire family perished in the Holocaust. Leibenson later moved to the Israeli city of Bat Yam, just south of Tel Aviv. He suffered from heart trouble and had very little money.
In the summer of 2002, Leibenson heard about a new law that had been passed by the German parliament. It promised a modest pension to Jews who had worked a regular job in the Nazi ghettos. Leibenson had been employed in a number of positions in the ghetto of the city of Siauliai, working in agriculture, railway construction and at a nearby airfield.
He submitted an application to the appropriate authority, the regional German state pension agency in Düsseldorf — and received a rejection notice. He filed a complaint with the Social Court in Düsseldorf — and lost. He appealed to the State Social Court in Essen — and lost again. Finally, he lodged an appeal with the Federal Social Court in Kassel. That was last year.
On Feb. 18, 2010, Abraham Leibenson died at the age of 84 without receiving a cent from the German state pension scheme. “He was extremely disappointed,” says his widow, Ettel Leibenson, “but that’s probably their policy — to wait long enough for them all to die, so it costs as little as possible.”
Over 90 Percent Denied
Germany’s so-called Ghetto Pension Law (ZRBG) was designed as an unbureaucratic and swift measure to close a gap in the country’s Nazi-era compensation — at least that’s what proponents of the bill intended in 2002. But the opposite has occurred. State pension agencies have denied over 90 percent of the roughly 70,000 applications submitted to date. “Every day 30 to 35 survivors die,” an Israeli government delegation told representatives of the German Ministry of Social Affairs last Wednesday. Nearly half of the applicants live in Israel.
Government insurance bureaucrats and judges in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia are largely to blame for the high rejection rates. They have been assigned the cases of claimants living in Israel. When in doubt, they interpret the law in a way detrimental to the survivors. Even though the law refers to “remuneration” rather than salary, applicants have been rejected if, for example, they received food stamps for their work. Officials have also cast doubt on whether they worked “of their own free will,” as it is formulated in the law. Many applicants have been erroneously classified as forced laborers, although lawmakers in Berlin very deliberately separated the current legislation from forced laborer compensation.
Historians were rarely consulted at the outset. State pension officials and judges preferred to rely on superficial reference works, like the Internet encyclopedia Wikipedia, as a basis for their decisions. In many cases, they even maintained that there had been no ghetto in the city in question. They often relied on a database maintained by the Karl Ernst Osthaus Museum, located in the western German town of Hagen. The museum documents just 400 ghettos in Eastern Europe — but the Russian historian Ilya Altman has counted 800 ghettos in just the region encompassing the former Soviet Union.
The rulings reached by the retirement insurance authorities and the judges are “in most cases poorly substantiated or totally unsubstantiated,” Stephan Lehnstaedt, of the German Historical Institute in Warsaw, wrote in a report. They “demonstrate the lack of a qualified approach to scientific literature and historical sources, even an appalling ignorance at times.”