Wednesday, Aug. 20, 2008

Reparation payments cannot erase Holocaust memories

Area residents apply to German government for compensation, but say they will never forget

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Felix and Doris Nicinski sat patiently at a folding table as two lawyers tapped away on laptops across from them at the Jewish Social Service Agency in Rockville Friday.

When the paperwork was filled out, the Silver Spring couple's application to the German government for a 2,000 euro reparation payment for "volunteer" work done in a Polish ghetto during the Holocaust was complete.

But nothing was repaired.

"It's too late coming," said the 82-year-old Felix Nicinski. "There will never be a closure. Never. You try to forgive, but you never forget."

Nicinski and his wife were among 30 Holocaust survivors who attended the clinic at the Jewish Social Service Agency (JSSA) where they received free legal help from lawyers from five area law firms in filling out the seven-page application. If the German government accepts the applications, the survivors would receive nearly $3,000 for work done in Nazi-controlled ghettos.

To those that survived those brutal times, however, the payments mean practically nothing.

"Financially, this means absolutely nothing," said Manny Kandel of Rockville, who was not yet a teenager when he and his mother worked in a ghetto cleaning houses. "It's recognition that this happened."

Lawyers from five firms — DLA Piper, Howrey, Latham & Watkins, Skadden Arps and Steptoe & Johnson — coordinated the free clinic in Rockville to guide survivors through the application process. The firms conducted three clinics in June, two in July and the final one on Aug. 15. Altogether about 100 survivors took advantage of the clinics. There are about 1,500 survivors in the D.C. area, one of the organizing lawyers said.

The German government announced this latest program in October.

Mia Sussman, a lawyer with Latham & Watkins who organized the workshop, said programs in the past meant to offer reparations for the Holocaust have often proven unsuccessful.

"My grandparents were both Holocaust survivors," she said, and she watched in the early 1990s when they applied and were turned down by the German government for a reparations program payment.

About 87 percent of those who applied for some earlier programs were turned down because, she explained, the criteria to qualify did not match the conditions from the time period.

However, when German Chancellor Angela Merkel was elected in 2005, she vowed to reform the reparations program, leading to the formation of the current plan, Sussman said. Her grandparents passed away before they could take advantage of the newest program.

In October, shortly after the latest payment program was announced, Bet Tzedek, a Los Angeles-based legal services organization, found out about the payments and organized free legal advice clinics to help survivors secure what was theirs.

Soon, more workshops began popping up in some 30 cities. Lawyers from large firms were doing pro bono work to help Holocaust survivors across the country, Sussman said.

"This program is far more effective than previous programs," she said.

Unlike previous compensation offered for slave labor in Nazi concentration camps, these reparations are meant to compensate for "voluntary" work the victims did to survive.

"There was nothing voluntary about it," Kandel said.

"We did what we had to do to survive," Nicinski said. "If we didn't, we would die."

Twelve lawyers sat ready to assist the survivors during Friday's session. Each survivor was assigned two lawyers. Stories of painful times were recounted and applications were filled.

"Across the board it's an amazing experience," Sussman said. "You can watch [the movie] ‘Schindler's List,' but speaking to a survivor in person is a totally different experience."