Holocaust survivors sue state over ‘unpaid reparations’

‘Tehran children’ lawsuit could set a precedent for similar class actions.

Holocaust Survivors 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Holocaust Survivors 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
A group of Holocaust survivors has brought a lawsuit against the State of Israel for what they say is their rightful share of reparations monies paid to Israel by the former West Germany under the 1953 Reparations Agreement between the two countries.
The 270 men and women, most of them in their 80s, are part of a group of Holocaust survivors known as the “Tehran children,” Jewish orphans who fled Germanoccupied Poland for the USSR in 1939. In 1941, after a period of incarceration in the Siberian Gulag, the children were allowed to travel with the newly formed Polish Anders Army to Tehran. The children's parents had been murdered by the Nazis in Poland or had died in Siberia.
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The Jewish Agency set up a camp for the orphans in Tehran, and in 1943 they were taken by ship to prestate Israel.
The first Holocaust survivors to arrive in Eretz Israel, the plight of the parentless “Tehran children’ sent shockwaves through the Jewish community.
According to Gad Weissfeld, the Tel Aviv lawyer representing them pro bono, the case was first brought to court in 2002, when the “Tehran children” filed a lawsuit in the Tel Aviv District Court against the Finance Ministry and the Jewish Agency.
Though the court upheld their claim, the state appealed, saying there was a statute of limitations, that the suit had been filed too late and that it was therefore irrelevant.
“Its not right for the state to raise such an argument,” Weissfeld told The Jerusalem Post on Monday.
Eventually, in 2008, the case was transferred to the Supreme Court, and in 2009, the Supreme Court ruled that the case should be reheard in the Tel Aviv District Court.
The case finally opened last week in the Tel Aviv District Court, and is being heard by Judge Drora Pilpel.
Since the case was first brought before the court in 2002, several of the elderly “Tehran children” named in the original suit have died.
The current lawsuit centers on the issue of whether the plaintiffs, as Holocaust survivors, are personally entitled to receive compensation payments from the monies Israel received under the Reparations Agreement.
Under that agreement, which came into force in March 1953, Germany paid Israel a total of 14 million marks over 14 years.
The “Tehran children” claim that they are entitled to a share of that money.
According to Weissfeld, though the reparations money was given to the State of Israel for the purpose of aiding Holocaust survivors, the State used it for public projects instead.
“The money was officially given to help resettle what were termed ‘Holocaust refugees,’ but instead Israel spent the money on general public use instead of giving it to Holocaust survivors,” notes Weissfeld. “A great many people benefitted from the money, but not the Holocaust survivors. They came here as ‘human dust,’ with absolutely nothing, and needed it for basic things like housing and education.”
According to Weissfeld, in the 1950s, the socialist governments believed that the money should not go to individuals but to the general public.
“The ‘Tehran children’ didn’t get any support from the state or the Jewish Agency, but on the other hand the state and the Jewish Agency benefitted from the reparations money that was given to help the ‘Tehran children,’” says Weissfeld.
Prof. Zeev Schuss, who came to Israel in 1943 as one of the “Tehran children,” is acting as a witness in the suit. He says that the claimants are only asking for what they are entitled to under the original Reparations Agreement.
“If you read [the agreement], you will see that it says that Israel was supposed to use the money for resettlement and rehabilitation of refugees,” Schuss says.
“It’s obvious that the agreement was referring to refugees from the Shoah and not anyone else. But Ben- Gurion said there would be no reparations, and instead the money would be used to build the country. There’s a big difference between what the agreement said and how the country interpreted it.
And that is the heart of this whole suit.”
The “Tehran children” are claiming entitlement to a payment of NIS 100,000 each, based on what they say they should have received in reparations valued at today’s rates.
“It’s bupkis [small change],” says Schuss. “I had to explain that word to the judge.”
Weissfeld says that though the current suit is small, if it succeeds it could open the floodgates for similar class action suits by other Holocaust survivors.
“It’s not a big suit this time, but the ‘Tehran children’ are only a small group of survivors,” Weissfeld says.
“But behind the door are 500,000 Holocaust ‘refugees’ and their descendants. If this case is successful, it opens that door for every other Holocaust survivor to sue, and that suit could be worth NIS 50 billion. It’s a real Pandora’s box.”
The hearings will continue in the Tel Aviv District Court next month, and a final verdict is expected within a year.