August 12, 2004
Slave Laborers Get Final Claims Check
Frieda Moldavan had to wait 60 years, but last week she was finally "compensated" for digging German anti-tank trenches outside Budapest in the bitter winter of 1944.
Moldavan received a check for slightly more than $3,000 -- the same amount paid to the other 4,325 former Jewish slave laborers living in California -- thus closing one more chapter in the long and contentious history of post-Holocaust reparations.
The check came from the Conference on Jewish Material Claims against Germany, part of a $1.3 billion fund established by the German government and some 6,000 German businesses.
A similar amount was paid to the former slave laborers about four years ago, and the current payment represents the second and final installment, said Mark Rothman, Holocaust services advocate at Bet Tzedek legal services.
However, Moldavan said the current check was the only payment she had ever received.
The 77-year-old Studio City resident was born in a small town in what was Czechoslovakia and now is part of Ukraine. She was 17 when she and 150 other women were given their shovels and, to this day, Moldavan remembers the cold, the hunger, the exhaustion and the dead, and the exact dimensions of the trenches.
"Each day, each of us had to dig a trench 10 feet long and 3 feet deep," she said.
Her husband, Max, was also a slave laborer. He was born in Sighet, Romania, living on the same street as Elie Wiesel and his family, until the area was incorporated into Hungary in 1940.
In 1943, he was sent to a Hungarian labor camp to build an airport, and the following year he was shipped to the Polish border to construct bunkhouses for the German army.
He has mixed feelings about his $3,000 check from the Claims Commission, which will go mainly to buy medications.
"If I weren't sick and old, I wouldn't accept it," Max Moldavan said. "Five years ago, the Hungarians sent me $50 to pay for the death of my mother in Auschwitz and I sent it back."
Rose Niederman was 15 years old in 1942 and celebrating the first seder night with her family, when soldiers broke into her house and told them to pack up what they could in 10 minutes.
The home was in a small Czech town, but Niederman had a hard time keeping track of her nationality.
"Every other month we were part of another country -- first Czechoslovakia, then Hungary, Romania, Russia and now Ukraine," she said.
Most of the family was killed in Auschwitz-Birkenau, but Niederman was sent to Germany to work in a factory manufacturing bullets for the Wehrmacht.
"We worked seven days a week, but don't ask the hours, we didn't know whether it was day or night," she remembered.
The food? "Don't even ask," she advised, her voice frequently overcome with emotion.
Now 76 years old and living in West Hollywood, Niederman can use every penny of the payment. Her monthly income consists of a $700 Social Security check, a $100 welfare check, and $60 in food stamps.
She hopes that the $3,000 will stretch to repair her windows, pay for arthritis medication, visit her sister who is in an Alzheimer's institution in Israel and maybe buy a little outfit for her grandchild in Florida.
The money is certainly welcome but, she said, "They can't pay for what I went through. They can't pay for my dead family."
Si Frumkin was born in Kovno, Lithuania. When he was 10, he and his parents were rounded up and sent to the Kovno ghetto, and at age 13, he was shipped to a Dachau satellite camp and assigned to a German construction company building an underground aircraft factory for future jet planes.
He worked at heavy labor 12 hours a day, seven days a week, alongside his father, who died three weeks before liberation by American troops.
The place was run by the Phillipp Holzmann company, now the biggest construction firm in Germany, and Frumkin has good reason to remember the name.
"I was shocked to hear some time ago that an American subsidiary of the same company had gotten the contract to build the U.S. World War II Memorial in Washington," he said. "I fired off letters of protest, but nobody cared."
Frumkin came to the United States in 1949, became a Studio City businessman and one of the earliest leaders of the Soviet Jewry movement.
He once figured out that if he had been paid the prevailing minimum wage for his labors by Holzmann, plus accumulated interest, he would be owed $85,000.
So while he accepted the $3,000 check, "I'm not jumping up and down with joy," said Frumkin, now 73.
At an earlier point in his life, he said, "I didn't want any German money. But now I feel that at least they have apologized for their crimes. Holland and France have never apologized for collaborating with the Nazis. Japan has never apologized for its war crimes."