“All the years we have lived very hard lives, hand to mouth, and suddenly we find out that money had come for us that we have never seen”, says Chaim Robinson (71) from Tel Aviv. “We feel cheated. The state was supposed to be our mother and father, but we were young and orphaned, and they took advantage of us”.
Robinson, together with 272 other people, all in their 70’s and 80’s, are suing the state to pay them their portion of the reparations agreement signed by Israel and Germany. All the plaintiffs were born in Poland and, after the war began, wandered for three and a half years as refugee children in Europe.
They stayed in camps in Siberia under difficult conditions of cold and hunger until 1943 when the Jewish Agency brought them to Israel via a transit camp in Teheran; hence the “Children of Teheran”. In Israel they were scattered among institutions, kibbutzim and moshavim.
Robinson, the man who initiated the suit, is representing himself. Attorney Gad Weisfeld is representing the other 272 plaintiffs.
“This is the first time that a group of Holocaust survivors is suing the State of Israel”, he says. “All the past suits were against foreign agents such as the banks of Switzerland. It is not easy for these people to sue the state, because throughout the years they were given the impression that they should be thankful they survived- and be quiet”.
Sleeping in the parks
They were homeless orphans. After they were drafted into the army, many of them had to spend their days off sleeping on park benches and in empty buses. Some of them grew up to be pilots and officers. Two IDF generals emerged from this sad group - Yanush Ben Gal and Chaim Erez.
“When I came to Israel I was as short as a dwarf, I weighed 25 kilo and was sent to 10 different Jewish Agency institutions”, Robinson tells. “Every time I was brought to a different place. I was drafted to the army without a diploma. Only at the age of 26 did I begin to complete my matriculations. I did not receive help from anyone”.
On September 10, 1952 the reparations agreement was signed. The Israeli delegation at the negotiations with the Germans did not include a single Holocaust survivor. The amount, 3.450 billion Marks, was paid mostly in merchandise, fuel and services. Part of that sum was delineated as reimbursement for the expenses related to the absorption and rehabilitation of the survivors.
In their zeal to sign the agreement, the government waived the rights of them and any survivor with Israeli citizenship to sue Germany for the return of property, reparations and any other means of corrections stemming from the Nazi injustice (at the very least reparations for freedom deprivation).
The agreement also exempted Germany from paying disability reparations to those who were injured in Nazi persecutions and had already come to Israel.
“Where is the money that the State of Israel received for me and for the rest of the survivors?” wonders Robinson. “We did not receive a cent. When I wanted to apply to a teacher’s seminary and asked for assistance because I was a Holocaust survivor, they said to me ‘You are European; we only help those from Eastern countries’. The money that was meant for our rehabilitation went to the wrong place, and we did not receive any of it”.
Class action suit
Throughout the years the Children of Teheran never thought to sue the state on the basis of the reparations agreement. “There were archives, like the Foreign Ministry Archives, that were closed to the public until the late 1990s and in them was material that shed light on the reparations agreement with Germany,” says Attorney Weisfeld. “When the documents were discovered, they realized that they had grounds to sue.”
In 2002 the Children of Teheran decided to sue for their portion of the payment, and 200 of them presented a class action suit through Weisfeld against the Jewish Agency and the State of Israel. They are asking for the equivalent of USD 1,500, the amount that Israel received from the German government for the absorption of the survivors, to be given to each of them individually.
Taking into account interest and adjusting for 50 years of inflation, the amount now stands at a hundred thousand shekel per plaintiff. The Judge Drora Pilpel rejected the class action suit but allowed for individual claims.
Last year 273 Children of Teheran submitted personal claims. Because of the difficulty paying the fee the amount was reduced to NIS 70,000 a person.
“First of all, we feel hurt”, says Yoska Vald (77) from Haifa. “The state received money for us. With the German money they bought boats for the Zim company and other large factories. And what did they do? They privatized them, And where is the money? They should have given each of us the opportunity to receive something and rehabilitate ourselves. If they built schools in the Lachish area with this money, it did not help us when we were roaming the streets with no place to sleep”.
“Today when I know that the state received money for us, it is clear to me that they should have taken better care of us”, says Moshe Goldman (78) from Tel Aviv.
“I wanted to continue studying, but I didn’t have the opportunity. A terrible injustice was committed against me and the other children. If the Germans thought that the children, who lived through what they did, deserved money and they decided to give it, why did the state decide to take it? That’s robbery."
This suit sets a precedent, and if the Children of Teheran win, legally every one of the half a million survivors who came to Israel before the agreement can sue for their share. An interesting legal question would be if a survivor died, can his children sue for reparation money. In this case, the amount could reach billions of shekels.
The State and the Jewish Agency categorically reject the claim arguing that the statute of limitations has expired. “The plaintiffs chose not to present a claim against the state during the decades that they were benefiting from the financial surplus that the State got from the agreement”, they claim. They also claim that the suit is not relevant because it was a political agreement between two countries.
At the end of July, David Goldstein of the Tel Aviv District court decided not to reject the claim of the Children of Teheran and to allow them to present their claims in court.
“A sense of justice obligates the State”, says Goldstein “to accommodate the relevant claims of the survivors, even if it will lead to a closing of the case or a rejection of the claim in court. It is necessary to reveal a historical truth, and for a sense of justice and honesty”.
The Justice Ministry responded: “With all of our identification and participation in the pain and suffering that the Children of Teheran experienced, the reparations agreement does not apply to individuals but to the State of Israel. On the other hand, the agreement does not prevent the Children of Teheran from serving a complaint against Germany and its allies.
"The plaintiffs were not discriminated against and their rights were not compromised. The claim of the Children of Teheran was presented decades too late, and does not allow us to reveal the truth, because the people who were involved in implementing the agreement are no longer alive.
"Therefore there are no grounds for this suit. The courts are not the proper address to debate a historical political agreement that was signed more than 50 years ago. For that matter: It has not yet been decided to appeal Judge Goldstein’s decision”.