March 07, 2013
“You’re part lawyer, part historian and often times just someone to talk to and share a life story with.” This is how Josh Mausner, a Los Angeles-based associate, describes the experience of helping Holocaust survivors file applications for reparations and pensions.
Since 2007 hundreds of lawyers and staff from Latham & Watkins' US and German offices have been working with pro bono clients applying for two programs available to Holocaust survivors through the German government for work done while living in German-controlled ghettos throughout Europe during World War II: the German Ghetto Work Payment (GGWP) and German Pensions for Work in Ghettos, which is known by its German acronym ZRBG.
The project is coordinated by Mausner and Bruce Prager, a New York-based partner, and is run in conjunction with Bet Tzedek Legal Services, a Los Angeles based organization that provides free legal services to the needy.
Guiding Survivors Through the Application Process
After a directive signed into law by German Chancellor Angela Merkel in October 2007, Latham began working with survivors on applications for GGWP, which provides survivors a one-time payment of €2000. GGWP was introduced as a substitute for ZRBG, which, at the time, had a rejection rate of more than 80 percent.
Though GGWP applications do not always require the assistance of a lawyer, there are some thorny issues that lawyers can help clients work through. One common client concern is a GGWP requirement that the work a survivor did in the Ghetto must have been “voluntary”. “The reason this is tricky is that most Holocaust survivors really don’t see anything about their involvement with the Nazis as being voluntary,” said Prager. “We have to engage with the survivor clients in a way that makes them comfortable to distinguish between work that they did that in some way was volitional on their part, as opposed to something where there was an immediate threat to their welfare or life that caused them to act. This is often a subtle and non-obvious distinction.”
Shifting Focus to ZRBG
In 2009 German courts issued a series of decisions that changed the criteria for receiving a pension under the ZRBG program, effectively opening the program up to a new group of survivors who previously had not qualified. Because ZRBG pensions provide survivors with monthly income for the rest of their lives, and sometimes substantial back-payments, the firm expanded its focus to ZRBG applications.
The team has seen a high success rate with these ZRBG re-applications; however, they often require substantial follow-up after submittal, and occasionally the filing of appeals. Anna Bravo, a New York-based secretarial coordinator and a native speaker of German, helps facilitate much of this back and forth between Latham’s team and the government offices in Germany.
The firm makes every effort to help each survivor they come in contact with. “We have great minds here and when we all put our heads together to strategize there is so much to be learned,” said Bravo. “When it looks completely desperate we still try to find a way.”
An added benefit of the project is that the application process creates a written record of each survivor’s story. “Some may never have spoken about their experience before,” said Prager. “Just sitting down with a stranger and talking about the time and where they were is a very difficult process for many of our clients. In some instances it is cathartic, in some instances quite painful.”
Awards Address Real Needs
Since starting the work in 2007 Latham has helped nearly 450 Holocaust survivors secure more than €1.7 million in lump-sum awards and more than €41,000 in ongoing payments each month for the remainder of our clients’ lives.
“I've had clients call me with overwhelming gratitude and emotion. Many survivors subsist on low, fixed incomes, and the awards enable them to cover basic necessities like medication and provide support to their families.” said Mausner.
Those that work on the project say that playing a part in helping those in need is particularly meaningful. “This has been the best professional experience I've had at any job,” said Mausner. “To see these people who have survived unthinkable tragedy have such a positive outlook on life is inspiring. We’re happy to be able to provide a degree of assistance and security for our clients and their families.”
Bravo agreed. “It's a unique opportunity for me as a secretarial coordinator,” she said. “I just greatly enjoy being able to help.”