70 years on, children who fled Nazis for U.K. to receive German pensions
German government probing whether Kindertransport members in Israel will also be eligible for pensions.
A historic amendment to British law will now allow hundreds of Jews who escaped Nazi Germany as children on the eve of World War II to receive German National Insurance pensions.
"After many years of struggle, we have solved the legal entanglement that prevented [those who were part of the] Kindertransport from receiving the payments," Herman Hirschberger, 82, of London, who spearheaded the campaign, told Haaretz last week. "It's a breakthrough. Justice has prevailed."
Following a Haaretz query, the German government is now checking to see whether the several hundred Jews who left Germany with the Kindertransport and who now live in Israel will also be eligible for German pensions.
The Kindertransport ("children's transport" in German) was a rescue mission that brought about 10,000 children, most of them Jews, out of Nazi Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia to safety in Britain on the eve of World War II. The children, aged 3 to 17, left their countries, homes and families and sailed to Britain between December 1938 and September 1939, where they were received by Jewish organizations.
Britain's Jewish leaders had obtained Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's consent to take them in, provided they paid for the refugees' travel and absorption expenses.
Until now, people who left Germany as part of the Kindertransport could not receive full German pensions, because they stopped paying German National Insurance fees upon arriving in Britain.
The German government offered compensation only for the years spent in Germany before the escape.
Hirschberger saw this as an injustice, since the children had migrated to Britain against their will. Had they not been persecuted, they would have remained in Germany and been eligible today for full National Insurance pensions.
Following the amendment to British law, some of the National Insurance fees the Kindertransport members paid Britain will be written off retroactively. Germany agreed to consider this period as one in which the survivors paid German National Insurance fees - and will increase their pensions accordingly. The average German pension is four times greater than the average British pension.
This breakthrough followed a long persistent struggle Hirschberger launched 15 years ago.
"Most of the time I was alone. Everyone had given up and thought it was impossible. Even my wife told me it would never happen," he said.
Hirschberger arrived in Britain from Germany in March 1939 at the age of 13. His parents, who were stuck in Germany, were murdered in Auschwitz.
"We're doing justice to this group of people, many of whom lost their families in the Holocaust and survived only because they were brought to Britain as children," said Mike O'Brien, British Minister of State for Pension Reform. The legislation is expected to be approved by the Queen in the next few months. With its enactment, the members of the Kindertransport will join other organized groups, such as former inmates of forced labor camps, who demanded and received pensions from Germany for the time they spent in labor camps out of Germany as well.
An estimated 150 people who came on the Kindertransport are still living in Britain. The government will act to locate them and has set up a hotline - +44(0)-191-218-7777 - in the Department for Work and Pension.
"I'll be very surprised if I get anything," said Inge Seden, 78, in her apartment in Jerusalem last week. "I haven't received anything from the Germans, except 1,000 pounds because my studies were interrupted."
Seden left home in Munich at the age of 9 and was brought to a village in England a few months after her brother and sister. English soon became her new mother tongue and remains so to this day. Seden is one of 3,000 Kindertransport children who immigrated to Israel after the war. She applied for German citizenship a few years ago, but changed her mind after a visit to Yad Vashem.
Hundreds of the Kindertransport children are still alive today, mostly in old-age homes. And in the wake of the British amendment, they are now wondering if they, too, might benefit from the increased German pensions.