The Tel Aviv District Court made legal history this week, ruling that the state must pay out compensation totaling NIS 17 million to a group of 217 Holocaust survivors who sued for unpaid reparations.
The claimants, mostly in their 80s, belong to a group of survivors known as the Tehran Children, Jewish orphans who fled Poland for the former Soviet Union in 1939 after the Nazis massacred their parents.
The Soviets first incarcerated the children in a Siberian gulag, but later allowed them to travel to Iran with the Polish Anders Army. The orphans lived in a refugee camp in Tehran until the Jewish Agency rescued them and brought them to Israel in 1943, where their arrival and tragic personal testimonies caused shockwaves throughout the Jewish community.
Over 200 of the Tehran Children first sued the state in 2004, arguing that they are entitled to their rightful share of reparation monies paid to Israel by West Germany under the 1953 Reparations Agreement.
This week’s court ruling, which the groups’ lawyer, Gad Weissfeld, said made “moral and legal history,” brings to an end the survivors’ nine-year legal battle, but also shines light onto a decades-long bitter struggle between Holocaust survivors and the state.
The civil suit centered on whether the Tehran children, as Holocaust survivors, are personally entitled to receive compensation payments from the monies Israel received under the Reparations Agreement.
Under that agreement, signed in Luxembourg on September 10, 1952, West Germany agreed to pay Israel some three billion Deutsch Marks in annual installments over 12 years in the form of goods and services – plus another DM 450 million over 12 years “to be used for the relief, rehabilitation and resettlement of Jewish victims of Nazi persecution”.
“[Then Prime Minister] Ben-Gurion’s interpretation of [the agreement] was that the state should take the money itself, and use it for public projects,” said Prof. Zeev Schuss, one of the Tehran children who testified in the trial as an expert witness.
However, Schuss said the state never rehabilitated the Tehran children, as it pledged to do under the Reparations Agreement.
Schuss, who was just five years old when he came to Israel in 1943, said that instead the Israeli government “disassociated itself” from the Tehran Children.
Most of the orphans were drafted into the IDF and fought in the War of Independence, Schuss said.
But when the war was over, the orphans found themselves with nowhere to go and, as the state had not trained them in any profession, nothing to do.
“Some of the Tehran children testified that after the war they slept in empty buses or in Meir Park in Tel Aviv, because they had nothing, no families and no homes,” Schuss added, noting that the state did not even officially recognize the Tehran Children as Holocaust survivors until 1997.
One of the complainants, 83-yearold Moshe Schreiber, was 13 when he came to Israel as one of the Tehran Children in 1943. Like many of his fellow children, he fought in the War of Independence, and afterwards the state had not helped him find a place to live or a profession, he said.
Schreiber said he was happy about the court ruling but angry at the way successive governments have dealt with survivors.
“It’s taken us nearly 60 years to get justice,” he said. “All of Israel’s governments, starting with Ben-Gurion’s and ending with this current government, they all refused us reparations. All of them turned their backs on the very weakest element in our society – Holocaust survivors, children and orphans.”
In her 41-page ruling, Judge Drora Pilpel slammed the state’s argument that if the court ruled in favor of the Tehran Children, the floodgates could be opened for more Holocaust survivor lawsuits, which could lead to an economic crisis in Israel if the state had to pay out.
The court ruled that all the Tehran Children – not just the 217 who sued – were each entitled to a compensation payment of NIS 50,000 each. To that sum must be added interest, increasing the compensation payment to NIS 78,000 each.
“The payment is bupkes [Yiddish for “absolutely nothing”], it’s purely symbolic and the state’s fears that the court ruling will ruin it are groundless,” Schuss said, noting that of the around 400 Tehran Children still alive, most are very elderly and only a handful are likely to step forward and claim their compensation.
It is not yet clear whether the state will appeal the ruling in the Supreme Court, an act Schuss said would be “unbecoming,” and would likely make the court case drag on for many more years.
“The state should pay. It’s time it put a stop to this poor treatment of survivors,” he concluded.