“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.