Septuagenarian Survivors Still Awaiting Reparations

Five men in their seventies, who were once dubbed the "Tehran Children," were sitting in a Tel Aviv cafe last week, recalling the painful memory of their arrival in Palestine; they were called "criminals" and sold the blankets they were given in order to buy food. They say their pain was augmented by the fact that Israel received hefty donations for them in the 1950s, alongside the reparations from Germany, but they never got to see any money. Now, too, the legal system is in no hurry to address their complaints. "We filed a lawsuit on behalf of 273 people, 10 percent of whom have died and 5 percent of whom are near death. But they are dragging their feet and waiting for us to die," says Avraham Nentzal, one of the Tehran Children.

In 2002 the group filed a lawsuit in the Tel Aviv District Court against the Finance Ministry and the Jewish Agency. They argue that they are entitled to compensation from the reparations agreement with Germany, positing that they were persecuted and survived the Nazi regime, immigrating to Israel prior to 1953. They claim that the reparations agreement included a personal compensation in the amount of $1,500, which, after adding tax and linkage, amounts to about NIS 70,000 per survivor.

The district court accepted their claim. But the state appealed the decision, arguing that there was a statue of limitations and that the suit had been filed too late. Eventually, the file was transferred to the Supreme Court, where the plaintiffs hoped to obtain justice - but their hopes were dashed. The Supreme Court first discussed the case in March 2008, and then again in March 2009. "They're trying to play with the statue of limitations, but there is no statue of limitations on deception," says one of the plaintiffs, Haim Robinson. "They're trying to outsmart us and are postponing the discussions," says Ze'ev Mangel. "The Finance Ministry doesn't want to pay. All our letters and requests remain unanswered. They prefer to drag it out, because we're slowly disappearing."

'No parents, no food'

The epithet "Tehran Children" was given to 836 Jewish children who traveled from Poland to Siberia, and later wandered the world for four years until arriving in Palestine. Before immigrating, they were gathered together in a transit camp in Tehran. "We left Poland as Poles," explains Prof. Zeev Schuss, "and were transferred from one place to another until we arrived, a group of 26,000 Poles, at the camp in Tehran. There, we made contact with Jewish Agency representatives who planned to bring us to Palestine." The children were split up - some boarded a ship for Karachi, then still part of India, and eventually arrived in Palestine via the Suez Canal in February 1943. Another group arrived on local shores via Iraq in August 1943. They were the first Holocaust survivors to arrive in Palestine.

When they arrived in Palestine, the children, who were about eight years old, were on the verge of collapse. "We had no parents or food, we were street children and stole what we needed to live," says Michael Koker. "When they gave us food I would put an apple under my shirt, because there would not be any the following day. We were expelled from the kibbutz and I found myself homeless and penniless. I slept in Bnei Brak's Warsaw Park and showered with a hose. In the mornings I looked like a normal person."

The group testifies that the Jewish Agency received money for their rehabilitation. "There were donations from Hadassah in New Jersey and from the Joint Distribution Committee, and of course from Germany," they say. "Apparently senior staffers treated themselves to apartments and cars, but we didn't see a shekel."

Amazingly, the only support the children received came from the Polish government, which paid four pounds sterling a month for each child - a huge sum at the time - until the state's establishment. This sum, given to any organization involved in adoption, might help explain why many people wanted to adopt the orphaned children who arrived in Palestine.

As part of the 1953 reparations agreement signed between Israel and Germany, Israel waived the rights of some survivors to sue Germany for health compensation. That exemption gave rise to the Disabled Victims of Nazi Persecution Law, which allowed those survivors unable to sue Germany to demand compensation from Israel. When the Tehran Children turned to the authorities for personal compensation, they were told that only those who immigrated after 1947 are considered Holocaust survivors. By contrast, they are considered "veteran immigrants."

In response to a query, the spokeswoman for the courts said the Supreme Court's ruling will be handed down soon.