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Jewish Journal

Forms of Frustration

Volunteers help survivors navigate a maze of legal forms, documentation problems and the flood of memories.

by Mike Levy

July 26, 2001 | 8:00 pm

Marie Kaufman needed help.

Even though the 60-year-old social worker is the president of a Holocaust child survivor's support group and has worked as an interviewer for Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, she had trouble when she applied for restitution for slave labor from the German government.

"I realized I couldn't do it myself -- and I'm a social worker," Kaufman says of the six-page application, one of the shorter forms among a myriad of government and corporate Holocaust restitution settlements of recent years.

With deadlines looming for Holocaust restitution applications, survivors like Kaufman -- and many others who have fewer resources -- are struggling with complex restitution applications that force them to relive their experiences during and after the Holocaust.

Though they have agreed to pay restitution funds, no government, financial institution or victims' fund will distribute money unless the survivors (or their heirs) can prove their suffering. The Swiss Refugee Program (for restitution to those who were mistreated or refused entry into Switzerland to avoid Nazi persecution) requests documents proving mistreatment or denial of entry, but will also accept a written personal history. The German foundation Remembrance, Responsibility and the Future, for example, requests a liberation certificate, repatriation document or displaced persons ID card from slave laborers and those forced to work. Most claim forms must be either notarized or stamped by the organization that helped fill out the form.

"The forms are so ... formal," Kaufman says. "You don't know where you fit. And once you start, you have to go through your whole history. It isn't just as easy as a day or a date," she told The Journal.

Kaufman turned to the Jewish Family Services (JFS), one of a number of local organizations -- like Bet Tzedek Legal Services and The Jewish Federation's Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust -- that help frustrated survivors get through the maze of paperwork, along with the painful memories that inevitably return.

JFS volunteer Muriel Honig, who has been working with survivors for 20 years, says that the process triggers painful memories. "I remember one lady from Poland, after the war she went back to see the village where her family was from. She saw her brother's house, went to visit. The occupants said to her, 'You're a Jew? I thought they burned you all.' And they slammed the door in her face."

Anne Kutrow hears these stories all the time. A 23-year veteran volunteer and board vice-president emeritus at JFS' Frieda Mohr Senior Center, Kutrow has felt the frustration of many survivors, as she helped them apply for restitution. "The forms ask for things they couldn't possibly have," she says. "Documentation ... from people who were forced to flee or herded onto trains in the middle of the night." Volunteers, like Kutrow, get hours of training from licensed social workers specifically to help with the wide range of restitution applications.

Volunteers at JFS' six Los Angeles locations have helped more than 700 survivors fill out restitution applications since February. Social workers and case aides at Bet Tzedek Legal Services have assisted another 300. When settlements are finalized, application forms are mailed to survivors who have previously qualified for restitution programs. Others who may be eligible are informed via newspaper advertisements (the Claims Conference ran ads in The Jewish Journal in May regarding the Swiss banks settlement) or word-of-mouth among survivors. In either case, applicants are instructed to contact local organizations for help if they have difficulty with the forms.

Until she got help, Kaufman says she was stymied: "I feel like I'm being toyed with, with these forms. There's a real frustration: 'Why are you doing this?'"

The process is purposely thorough. says Hillary Kessler-Godin, Claims Conference communication director. "We're going by the guidelines established with the German government and industry. A lot of thought went into the design of the forms, to make them as easy as possible, keeping in mind the goal of processing a very large amount of information. We are making every attempt possible to get survivors restitution," she says.

A lack of documentation or evidence should not prevent any survivor from applying for restitution, says Lisa Grant, Bet Tzedek's Holocaust Services paralegal and restitution coordinator. Though it is still too early to know exactly how much documentation the banks or government settlements will deem mandatory, it is not yet too late to trace many pieces of documentation, she says.

Grant has been working with the Red Cross, which has access to millions of documents relating to Nazi persecution and which maintains a Holocaust and War Victims Tracing and Information Center in Baltimore. With a request filed at any local office, the Red Cross can trace many survivors' records through archives. Since the fall of the Soviet Union and subsequent declassification of Soviet files and captured WWII files, the Red Cross has gained access to even more Holocaust-related information.

Like all of the organizations for survivors, the Red Cross traces this information for free. And though a full search for documents can take six months to a year, German and Swiss foundations have recently accepted the Red Cross' fast-track program, which can provide a simple "yes" or "no" to the question of whether an individual was persecuted, in only a few weeks.

Grant knows that no application for Holocaust restitution will feel appropriate: "How can you conform your life story to a paper application?" Still, she encourages all eligible survivors or their heirs to apply, even without documentation, even though it may be difficult. "We keep Kleenex around here," she says.

Even if they do find evidence of their suffering, putting it on paper can be even more difficult. "People are being asked where they went first, second, the city, the factory name, and of course they become very emotional," JFS volunteer Charlotte Kamenir says. "Very often, when they mention a certain place, a certain incident comes back. The whole thing becomes very upsetting to them."

One restitution form includes a box to check off "if you were subjected to medical experiments in a concentration camp." A questionnaire for the Austrian Reconciliation Fund asks female forced laborers: "Were you coerced to terminate a pregnancy by abortion...?" Another form has space to fill in a family tree.

No matter what their story, survivors welcome the help of volunteers. Kaufman was a child when she fled with her family from Poland and was hidden throughout the war in Vichy France -- she has vague memories of her experience during the war. "Just to have somebody else be in charge of it was helpful. Thank heavens for the volunteers."

Upcoming application deadlines:

Swiss Banks Deposited Assets -- Aug. 5, 2001

Refugees to Switzerland -- Sept. 30, 2001

Slave and Forced Laborers -- Dec. 31, 2001

For more information, contact:

Jewish Family Services, Pico Robertson Storefront -- (310) 271-3306

Bet Tzedek's Holocaust Restitution Hotline --(323) 549-5883

Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust --(323) 761-8170

On the Internet:

Claims Conference -- www.claimscon.org

Red Cross document tracing -- www.redcross.org/services/intl/holotrace/index.html

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