Payback for Holocaust survivors
South Florida attorneys help Holocaust survivors gain reparations.
Attorney Steven W. Marcus helped Uri Rantz obtain a $650-a-month pension from the German government. [Photo: Eileen Escarda]
After surviving the Holocaust, Uri Rantz decided not to seek reparations from the German government. "Money could never compensate us for our losses," says Rantz, who spent much of World War II fleeing the Nazis from one European country to another. "I did not want their money."
Rantz, a retired missile guidance systems researcher who worked in Israel and here in the U.S., is in his 90s now and lives in south Florida. His health is failing. His wife, Senia, a survivor of the Auschwitz concentration camp, is 87. Her health is also failing. Together, their medical bills — hundreds of dollars a month — convinced Rantz to change his mind about accepting payments from the German government.
During fiscal 2010-11, Florida lawyers donated 1.6 million hours of work and gave $4.8 million to legal aid organizations. In 2009-10, Florida's lawyers also donated 1.6 million hours but gave $200,000 less to legal aid groups, according to the Florida Bar.
Since the war, the German government has instituted numerous programs for Holocaust survivors seeking financial reparations, but applying for the money can be a challenging process, often requiring documents that the survivors don't have. Sometimes, the survivors are asked to remember details of events that happened more 70 years ago, which is tricky since many of the survivors are in their late 80s or 90s and simply can't remember the specifics.
Jewish Family Services of Broward County referred Rantz to Steven W. Marcus, a shareholder at Fowler White Boggs in Fort Lauderdale. Marcus, along with Carey Villeneuve, an associate at the firm, signed up to give free legal help to Holocaust survivors last year after reading about Holland & Knight partner Kevin E. Packman's work with Holocaust survivors in Miami. Since 2010, Packman has helped more than 500 south Florida survivors get more than $850,000 in payments and pensions. On average, the survivors who qualify get $315 a month.
"He's doing some very good work," says 81-year-old Aranka Siegal, a Packman client who was 13 when her family was deported to Auschwitz. Neither of her parents survived. Siegal, who lives in south Florida, has written several books about her Holocaust experiences, including "Memories of Babi," "Upon the Head of a Goat: A Childhood in Hungary 1939-1944" and "Grace in the Wilderness: After the Liberation 1944-1948." She says the Germans require a lot of papers to be filled out before they'll approve a pension and that without the help of an attorney it's unlikely many of the survivors would be able to navigate the process.
Like Rantz, many survivors initially refused to apply for the money years ago but are seeking it now because they need it.
"These survivors lived through hell," Packman says. "A lot of them accomplished great things and amazing feats beyond their survival. They've lived successful lives, raised successful and productive children, but a lot of them are really suffering now. They're living below the poverty line in their golden years. Some say they don't want any of that ‘blood money' from Germany, but they need it. Nothing will ever compensate them for what they went through, but if something can help them live a little bit better, they need to look at it that way."
Marcus steered Rantz toward a program that offers survivors a pension if they can demonstrate they endured 60 months of persecution during the war, including at least some time working in a Jewish ghetto. The rest of the 60 months could include time spent in hiding or in a labor or concentration camp. Rantz learned recently that he qualified for a $650-a-month pension. His wife was previously given a $400-a-month pension for her time in Auschwitz.
"The money comes at the right time for us," Rantz says.
So far, Marcus and his colleagues have done work for more than 25 Holocaust clients. But they say there are potentially hundreds more survivors in Broward alone who they are trying to reach, either through referrals from Jewish groups or at a series of legal clinics they'll be attending this year.
"We do some great work for companies and corporations and all kinds of clients and that feels good," says Marcus. "But I have to tell you, hands down, nothing feels as good as this. Nothing."