Creative Approach to Law Practice

Benjamin B. Ferencz

A hungry lawyer welcomes every challenge. Although I had resigned from my positions as Director of the different restitution programs in 1956, I could not walk away from some of the issues that had engaged my personal attention for many years. I agreed to remain as Legal Advisor to the URO and the Claims Conference for a modest retainer. It required frequent visits to URO offices abroad, and continuing involvement in resolving difficult problems. It was in that capacity that I became a driving force in the strenuous and long-lasting attempts to obtain compensation from German industrial corporations like IG Farben and Krupp, that had worked concentration camp inmates to death. The details are all contained in my book, Less Than Slaves, which won national prizes as the best book on the Holocaust at that time. After much litigation, I thought the problems had been laid to rest. Since my restitution organizational retainers required me to travel abroad very frequently, I eventually built up a practice related to international claims.

In the absence of regular employment opportunities in a legal firm, I began to acquire a reputation as a private lawyer who would consider hopeless matters. Many of my clients only came to me after their cases had been lost or rejected by other attorneys. They were willing to pay a small contingent fee if I could snatch victory from defeat. Much of my practice revolved around weak cases that were morally justifiable. One example of such a case involved the world’s oldest and probably most renowned Jewish social organization, The International Order of B’nai B’rith, which boasted more than half a million members and occupied a large white building in the nation’s capital.

The B’nai B’rith had over a hundred lodges in Germany that were dissolved when Hitler came to power. In my capacity as Director of the JRSO, and therefore as the lawful custodian of dissolved Jewish organizations, I was responsible for the distribution of properties and funds to be used for the benefit of all surviving Nazi victims. Just as the JRSO gave the new congregations whatever they required from the former communal properties, the Supreme Lodge in Washington had been given the proceeds derived from the sale of their former German branches. My relations remained cordial with the B’nai B’rith leadership, and they were receptive when I approached them with an idea that, even though it may take years, would prove to their advantage.

The U.S. Government, as was customary, had seized all assets owned by nationals of countries with which we were at war. The sale of such enemy assets by the Alien Property Custodian provided funds that the U.S. Treasury could use to reimburse American citizens whose properties in Germany had been taken by the Reich. The B’nai B’rith was an American legal entity. If it could be shown that it was the owner of properties confiscated by Hitler, they might qualify to share in the war claims fund.

The President of B’nai B’rith was Philip Klutznick, a lawyer and astute real estate developer from Chicago. (He was later appointed Secretary of Commerce.) He recognized that retaining me to present a claim for the lodges might be good business. He was right. Of course, it was not easy to prove that a hundred different lodges registered as owners in a hundred different cities in Germany were not really the German owners, since the property belonged to the Supreme Lodge in Washington.

The judges in the War Claims Commission were very impressed with the creative legal arguments meticulously presented to substantiate the claims. They may also have been receptive to the enclosed photographs of the American Presidents who regularly appeared as keynote speakers at the annual conventions of the Order. After long negotiations, presentations, and appeals, the Foreign Claims Settlement Commission issued a final award in favor of the B’nai B’rith Supreme Lodge in Washington for more than a million dollars. However, that did not mean that the sum would simply be handed over in a check from the U.S. Treasury. If the total amount of the awards for all claimants exceeded the funds available, the payout would have to be prorated among the successful applicants. That could not be known until all awards were issued, totaled, and compared with the assets on hand. That would take time and might significantly diminish the actual payout.

At the same time, with the help of some astute Washington lobbyists, a preference had been written into the War Claims Law that would allocate all of the money to a few privileged corporate clients with very substantial awards. Innocuous sounding clauses disguised as “A Massachusetts Bus Compact” and “The Dutiable Status of Alumina and Hydroxide,” were appended to other bills, and there was a real danger that the B’nai B’rith, and similarly situated charitable organizations, might get nothing. A new amendment was needed to cancel the one that had been slipped past the numbed noses of the Congress. The wrath of Ferencz was upon the culprits!

Foreign Claims awards were matters of public record. As a former war crimes investigator, it was not difficult for me to discover who was being skewered and by whom. Since my adversaries had considerable influence on “The Hill,” I turned to even higher authorities. I decided to mobilize the churches and charities that would be the primary victims of the preferential legislation designed to divest them of their legal and moral entitlements. I invited them to a meeting where a plan of action could be considered. After due deliberation, about twenty of the participants formed “The Coordinating Council of Churches and Charities with War Claims Awards.” On my suggestion, I was invited to serve as Counsel to the Council. In addition to B’nai B’rith, I thus included among my clients Baptists, Protestants, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Methodists, Seventh Day Adventists, and other religious denominations. The Catholics decided to have their interests protected by Sister Celestine, a lawyer whose cooperation I always welcomed. She was as sweet and gentle a nun as ever held a rosary, and her help was inspired and priceless. Her Order was “The Sisters of Charity,” and she may have benefitted from charity as well as Divine inspiration.

In order to protect the churches and charities, it was necessary for Congress to enact another amendment to the War Claims Bill. It could only be expected to pass if no objections were raised by any member of the House of Representatives or the Senate. I moved into a hotel near the Senate and began to make the rounds. In office after office, I explained to the Congressional aides that two corporations with large assets in East Germany were now trying to empty the church plate for their own advantage. The allegation that they were entitled to preference as a “small business” was a deliberate deception. The politicians were quite impressed by the list of U.S. churches whose parishioners needed protection in all corners of the country. No one dared speak out against the committees of their religious constituents who were organized to call on their congressmen for support.

Despite the merit of the amendment proposed by the churches, and the political pressure of the applicants, there were major obstacles to be overcome. Unless the Judiciary Committee voted for the bill, it could not even be considered by the Senate. I had learned that a leading Committee member was beholden to the lobbyists who were trying to raid the war claims till. Senator Edward Kennedy was also on the Judiciary Committee-and he was not beholden; in fact, one of his sisters was a Sister; by which I mean a nun. Sister Celestine, not related to Kennedy’s sister, accompanied me and other members of our group when we sought help from Senator Kennedy. He was sympathetic, but was stymied by the situation. The time had come to replace the silk gloves with a Crusader’s cross backed up by a Star of David.

I had come to know one of the aides to the Senator who was blocking our bill. The aide was a religious man who was visibly uncomfortable with the position taken by his boss, who was up for reelection. I informed the aide that when the Senator returned to his home state to campaign over the weekend, he would be visited by a committee of church representatives asking for his help. The important responsibility carried by the Senator would be widely advertised in a favorable way. If the Senator thereafter voted against the churches, that too would naturally attract widespread publicity.

When the church group called upon the Senator as had been prearranged, he listened, but made no commitment. He later invited me to join him for a cup of white bean soup in the Senate dining room. He drank sour milk. I guess it matched his mood. I proposed a compromise. His aide was sent scurrying to see if it was possible. After he had contacted the lobbyists, he reported, “No deal.” I continued my round to the honest Congressmen. All parties associated with the “Coordinating Council” were encouraged to contact their representatives. A few days later, obstructionist Senator spotted me in the Senate anteroom and approached me menacingly saying, “Who is putting all this pressure on me?” His face grew redder as he shouted, “I’d like to know who is putting all this pressure on me!” I replied softly, “Senator, you have your responsibilities, and I have mine.” The next day, the Judiciary Committee was scheduled to vote. Sister Celestine and I were waiting in the corridor outside the Committee door. Soon, Senator Kennedy came rushing over to us. “What did you do to that Senator?! I never saw such a flip-flop!” Reason had prevailed. The full Senate vote in favor of the churches was in the bag.

The House of Representatives also had an interesting denouement. The Speaker of the House was John McCormack of Massachusetts--a devout Catholic. His wife was ill and hospitalized in a D.C. hospital. Every evening, Speaker McCormack joined his dear wife for dinner at her bedside. The hospital, as chance, or somebody, would have it, was run by The Sisters of Charity. The nun who carried the evening tray had been briefed by Sister Celestine, my distinguished colleague in law. As the tray was handed to the Congressman, the dear Sister always asked, “And how, pray tell, is our War Claims Bill, coming along?” I was sitting in the balcony of the House when McCormick called up the bill for a vote. Before I knew what was happening, and with no discussion, he slammed down his gavel, and shouted “Passed.” I guess it’s true that “The Lord moves in strange and mysterious ways.”

My fee was 7% of the additional amount gained for my clients. Some of the biggest awards were made to important churches that took the benefits without contributing to me or to the group. The Catholics, with a sizeable award, contributed only the services of dear Sister Celestine, who was worth her weight in gold. I was so pleased with our success that I invited all those who had helped with the negotiations to be my guests at a party at a nice Italian restaurant in Greenwich Village. Sister Celestine arrived in a rickety old car driven by Sister Rosa. Since the waiters were not quite ready, we were invited to have a seat at the bar where the Sisters were served cold Coca Cola. When the owner showed up, he was quite surprised to see two nuns, in full habit, having a drink at his bar. I could see his consternation, until I explained. But it was a good laugh and a fitting celebration to our common efforts in a common and noble cause.