Germany Approves State Pensions for Former Ghetto Workers

New law lifts bureaucratic obstacles that for years have prevented tens of thousands of survivors from receiving their due state pensions.

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Jews in the Kaunas ghetto in Lithuania, 1943.Credit: AP

BERLIN − The German government Tuesday approved a bill that would regulate pensions to Holocaust survivors who worked in ghettos during World War II. After the law is passed by the German parliament in the coming months, tens of thousands of survivors who have been unable to take full advantage of their right to such a pension due to a bureaucratic obstacle will now be able to receive payment.

The Federal Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs announced Tuesday that ghetto workers would be able to receive their pensions retroactively from July 1, 1997.

Emmanuel Nachshon, minister of the Israeli embassy in Berlin, said a year ago that the Germans owe about 500 million euros to 50,000 survivors who worked in the ghettos.

“Today we cannot imagine what the meaning of working in the Nazi ghettos was. But there are still tens of thousands who are suffering from this harsh fate,” German Labor and Social Affairs Minister Andrea Nahles said. She pledged that the funds would be transferred “quickly and without bureaucracy,” and said it was “important that after long years we found a solution that is good for everyone.”

Nahles said the law would be passed before the German parliament’s summer recess.

The issue of pension payments for former ghetto workers is complex and has known many ups and downs in recent years. Until 1997, former ghetto workers were considered forced laborers who were not entitled to receive a pension for their work. In 1997, a German court ruled in favor of former workers of the Lodz Ghetto in Poland.

In 2002, the Ghetto pension law (ZRBG) was passed based on that ruling, granting pensions for work “that was done out of choice and in exchange for recompense in the ghetto in regions that were conquered or annexed by the Nazis.” However, problems quickly surfaced in its implementation. Most of the applications for pensions were denied by the authorities for absurd reasons.

In 2009, the Federal Social Court interpreted the term “recompense” more flexibly and determined that food or other benefits people received for their work in the ghetto would also be considered recompense. The court also decided that recompense given to members of the ghetto’s Jewish governing councils, the Judenrats, instead of to a worker, would also be considered recompense. The court also expanded the meaning of work “by choice.”

Meanwhile, a German judge, Jan-Robert von Renesse, fought for the former ghetto workers and harshly criticized the authorities over the matter. He came to Israel especially to take testimony from survivors who worked in the ghettos and thanks to him, thousands of survivors have begun to receive the pensions to which they are entitled. However, the justice system, fearing a wave of lawsuits, made it difficult for him to proceed.

German SS soldiers lead a group of Polish Jews away for deportation after the Warsaw Ghetto Revolt in 1943.Credit: AP

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