South Florida's ZRBG Project Featured in the Sun-Sentinel (6/25/2010)
- Florida Sun-Sentinel
Former Nazi slave laborers seek payment from Germany
Court ruling means some of the 16,000 Holocaust survivors in South Florida could be eligible
By Lois K. Solomon, Sun Sentinel
11:34 p.m. EDT, June 25, 2010
Paul Borenstein of Delray Beach lost his hearing in one ear and developed ulcers from the slave labor he performed as a teenager in a Nazi-created ghetto.
His mother, brother and three sisters were murdered in the Holocaust, a calamity that brings him to tears to this day.
He visited Ruth Rales Jewish Family Service west of Boca Raton last week seeking a newly available stipend from Germany for the difficult early years of his life in Poland, when he worked for the Nazis as an unpaid electrician, fixing ear-splitting factory machines and recovering unexploded bombs.
"The money could never make up for what happened to me," said Borenstein, 83, a father of three and grandfather of seven who went on to become an electrical contractor in the United States. "But it's the proper thing. I was a forced laborer. In actuality, they owe me the money."
In an effort to obtain justice for their slavery, some South Florida Holocaust survivors are petitioning Germany for court-ordered compensation that could ease the last years of their lives, tapping into one of several Holocaust compensation programs the German government has developed since the destruction of European Jewry in World War II.
The German government began setting up these accounts in 1952. A Hardship Fund assists survivors with health problems, while another helps with home health care. Special funds also have been designated for people who suffered specific injustices, such as those forced to work in battalions in Romania, sent to camps in Hungary or imprisoned by the Nazis in North Africa.
The Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, which negotiates survivors' restitution claims, has allocated $200 million this year for survivors' social welfare programs in 46 countries. Florida agencies will get $4,485,000 to aid Nazi victims, a 40 percent increase from last year.
Germany developed a pension program for Nazi ghetto workers 12 years ago but denied 95 percent of applicants, said Mitch Kamin, chief executive officer and president of Bet Tzedek Legal Services in Los Angeles, which is coordinating a new American reparation effort.
But last year, a German court ruled that the applications should be considered more liberally, potentially opening up the benefits to many previously rejected survivors, most of whom are in their 80s and 90s, he said. One-fourth of American Holocaust survivors live below the poverty line, according to a national Jewish population study.
If they are approved under the more flexible criteria, survivors could receive a monthly pension from the German social security system. The German government is already examining 56,000 claims of survivors whose applications had been rejected, said Hillary Kessler-Godin, spokeswoman for the Claims Conference.
Some survivors have already received payments from the German government for their work in the ghettos, including a one-time benefit of 2,000 euros. Those who received that money may have to return it if they qualify for the social security, Kamin said.
Although fewer than a dozen victims of the Nazis visited the family service agency last week, thousands of South Florida survivors may be eligible for the benefits, even if they were denied in previous claims. About 16,000 survivors live in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties.
Bet Tzedek has set up a network of volunteer attorneys to assist former ghetto workers in applying for the benefits. Attorneys Kevin Packman and Mauricio Rivero of Holland & Knight in Miami spent an hour with each survivor at Ruth Rales last week.
"I'm a student of history, and this is a rare opportunity to interact with a group of people who won't be around much longer," Rivero said. "It's a way of righting the wrongs they suffered."
Rivero and Packman helped survivor Morris Jay, 83, of Boca Raton fill out his application. Jay's family was forced into the Ungvar ghetto in Hungary and he survived more than five concentration camps, performing labor such as weeding onions, digging ditches and factory work.
"It's about time the Germans paid us something for our troubles, for what they did to us," Jay said.
Lois Solomon can be reached at lsolomon@SunSentinel.com or 561-243-6536.
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