Wednesday, Aug. 20, 2008

Reparation cannot ease horrors of the Holocaust

Area residents apply for compensation, but say they will never forget

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Felix and Doris Nicinski sat patiently at a folding table as two lawyers tapped away on laptops across from them at the Jewish Social Service Agency in Rockville on Friday.

When the paperwork was filled out, the Silver Spring couple's application to the German government for a 2,000 euro reparation payment for "volunteer" work done in a Polish ghetto during the Holocaust was complete.

But nothing was repaired.

"It's too late coming," said the 82-year-old Felix Nicinski. "There will never be a closure. Never. You try to forgive, but you never forget."

Nicinski and his wife were among 30 Holocaust survivors who attended the clinic at the Jewish Social Service Agency (JSSA), where they received free legal help from lawyers from five area law firms in filling out the seven-page application. If the German government accepts the applications, the survivors would receive nearly $3,000 for work done in Nazi-controlled ghettos.

To those who survived those brutal times, however, the payments mean very little.

"Financially, this means absolutely nothing," said Manny Kandel of Rockville, who was not yet a teenager when he and his mother worked in a ghetto cleaning houses. "It's recognition that this happened."

Lawyers from five firms — DLA Piper, Howrey, Latham & Watkins, Skadden Arps and Steptoe & Johnson — coordinated the free clinic in Rockville to guide survivors through the application process. The firms conducted three clinics in June, two in July and the final one Aug. 15. Altogether about 100 survivors took advantage of the clinics; there are about 1,500 survivors in the D.C. area, one of the organizing lawyers said.

The German government announced this latest program in October.

Mia Sussman, a lawyer with Latham & Watkins who organized the workshop, said programs in the past meant to offer reparations for the Holocaust have often proven unsuccessful.

"My grandparents were both Holocaust survivors," she said, and she watched in the early 1990s when they applied and were turned down by the German government for a reparations program payment.

About 87 percent of those who applied for some earlier programs were turned down, because, she explained, the criteria to qualify did not match the conditions from the time period.

However, when German Chancellor Angela Merkel was elected in 2005, she vowed to reform the reparations program, leading to the formation of the current plan, Sussman said. Her grandparents died before they could take advantage of the newest program.

In October, shortly after the latest payment program was announced, Bet Tzedek, a Los Angeles-based legal services organization, found out about the payments and organized free legal advice clinics to help survivors secure what was theirs.

Soon, more workshops began popping up in some 30 cities. Lawyers from large firms were doing pro bono work to help Holocaust survivors across the country, Sussman said.

"This program is far more effective than previous programs," she said.

Unlike previous compensation offered for slave labor in Nazi concentration camps, these reparations are meant to compensate for "voluntary" work victims did to survive.

"There was nothing voluntary about it," Kandel said.

"We did what we had to do to survive," Nicinski said. "If we didn't, we would die."

Twelve lawyers sat ready to assist survivors during Friday's session. Each survivor was assigned two lawyers. Stories of painful times were recounted and applications filled.

"Across the board it's an amazing experience," Sussman said. "You can watch [the movie] ‘Schindler's List,' but speaking to a survivor in person is a totally different experience."

Nicinski was first sent to a concentration camp. "We had to dig ditches, we didn't know what for," he said. "We measured out length, width, depth. It was hard work."

So he escaped. For several weeks, perhaps a month, he slept in bushes and hid, periodically being beaten when citizens found him. Eventually, he grew tired and sought out the nearest ghetto. He had to persuade ghetto police on the perimeter that he was a Jew and was not trying to infiltrate the neighborhood.

"They said, ‘What right do you have to smuggle yourself into the ghetto? The Jews try to escape the ghetto, not come in,'" Nicinski said.

Once inside, he ironed clothing — the work for which the German government should be sending him a nearly $3,000 check.

His wife, Doris, lived in the town of Auschwitz, about a mile from the infamous concentration camp. She was relocated to a ghetto several towns away, she said. She and Felix met later and settled in Silver Spring, where Nicinski opened a barber shop.

Nicinski sat stoically as he recounted his ordeal. When one of the lawyers asked if the elderly couple needed a break, however, Nicinski joked, "No, no, we're fine. We're used to that."

By the time Kandel was 12, he and his mother had immigrated to America. Until then, his mother cleaned farmers' houses in exchange for scraps of food while living in a ghetto. One of the lawyers interviewing him categorized his mother's work as a cleaning service.

"Yes," Kandel said. "But cleaning service sounds so antiseptic. It just doesn't describe it."

He and his mother escaped the ghetto and stayed on the run for more than a year. They found a friendly family who let them hide in their home, Kandel said.

His mother opened a grocery store in Washington, D.C. He now has what he calls a "typical American life." He has three children, wears Adidas sneakers and his interview with the lawyers was interrupted by his cell phone.

"I don't read books or watch movies about the Holocaust," Kandel said. "I find them very superficial. I don't think anything can pay for this. There isn't enough money."