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Partial Payback: Lawyers Help Holocaust Survivors Apply for Pensions

Connecticut Law Tribune

February 28, 2011

When he was a small boy growing up in Brooklyn, N.Y, Victor Stern once asked his father what the letters “K.L.” stood for on the tattoo on his left wrist.

“Kiss Libby,” his father replied with a smile, speaking of the boy’s mother.

Years later, when he was almost a man, Stern would find out the real meaning behind the letters seared into his father’s flesh. Unbeknownst to his father, Victor was sitting in the audience at a Jewish summer camp in upstate New York when his father spoke publicly for the first time about surviving the Holocaust.

K.L. stood for “Konzentrations-lager” — or concentration camp.

As an adult, Stern realized the gift his parents had given him as a child. “With Holocaust survivors, or anybody who has been through a traumatic experience, you don’t tell your children because you don’t want them to feel the agony you went through.”

It is a history Stern recently had to recount again as he sought to help his mother gain some small measure of reparation from the German government for the stolen years she and her husband spent toiling for the Nazis in Jewish ghettoes.

Assisting Stern with the complex application for pension funds was attorney Andrew Zeitlin, a partner in the Stamford offices of Shipman & Goodwin. The firm, along with Aetna Insurance Co.’s in-house lawyers, is again involved in a national pro bono project that began in 2008 when lawyers helped Holocaust survivors apply for one-time payments of about $3,000 from the German government.

Now there’s more money available. In 2009, a German court found the government was interpreting a 2002 pension program too strictly, unjustly denying thousands of Jewish survivors monthly pensions and back payments for work performed in Jewish ghettoes.

For Zeitlin, whose father-in-law narrowly escaped the Holocaust, the effort is a personal one.

A few years ago, 11 of his family members traveled back to Frankfurt, Germany, and stayed in the house his father-in-law grew up in, now a small hotel. His father-in-law had to attend a separate school for Jews back then, but he was spared a worse fate after his parents had the foresight and means to get his family out of the country in 1936.

“It was an emotional, moving experience,” Zeitlin recalls.

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