Reimbursing Good Samaritans

Benjamin B. Ferencz

One of the enduring lessons of my life has been that if you are trying to achieve a just goal, even if it is without precedent and appears hopeless, the obstacles can be overcome with patience, perseverance, and persistence. There are four basic rules to follow: Never give up! Never give up! Never give up! Try harder!! Even after unprecedented German laws were enacted to provide some compensation to victims of persecution, and even after they were improved by laws that were labeled “Final,” it was still possible to obtain additional payments to help fill some of the gaps. When you are doing the impossible, it takes somewhat longer and requires much greater effort. To be sure, having clients who pay in advance makes life easier; my law practice was seldom easy.

When the concentration camps were liberated by Allied forces in 1945, many of the inmates were more dead than alive. Tuberculosis, dysentery, diarrhea, typhus, and other diseases had ravaged the emaciated bodies of starving survivors. My goal as a war crimes investigator was to get into the camps as quickly as possible, grab whatever incriminating evidence might be available, and get out of the camp. Army medical teams were on the scene quickly but, if the sick were ever to be restored, long term medical care would be vital. In most cases, complete recovery from invisible traumas would be impossible. Without immediate medical aid, many would perish. During The Hague negotiations in 1952, Germany recognized the legal principle that the cost of caring for Hitler’s victims should be borne by the wrongdoing German State. But they refused to compensate any private welfare agencies that cared for the sick and the dying. That refusal of the wrongdoer to reimburse the “good Samaritan” private organizations seemed to me to be an injustice that called for a remedy.

After long debates, the responsible German officials agreed to consider reimbursement if the individual victim in fact had a legal obligation to repay the charitable organizations that had incurred medical expenses on his behalf. As I would soon find by studying masses of records, this was indeed the case. Many of the Nazi victims had signed hospital paperwork agreeing to assign monies they might receive to pay for incurred costs. This legal obligation on behalf of the Nazi victims could serve as the basis for a claim for compensation. I passed this along to the Jewish organizations that might profit from the information, with a gentle suggestion that they might wish to consider retaining me to represent them on this difficult and uncertain matter.

Not all potential clients were prepared to accept my kind offer. I approached the Canadian Jewish Congress, since many Jewish survivors had found refuge in that country. The President of the Congress was Sam Bronfman, who made a fortune selling liquor. It was even reputed that, during prohibition in the United States, the Bronfman distilleries had been a supplier for the notorious bootlegger Al Capone. We met in Bronfman’s sumptuous office in Montreal. And of course he immediately offered me a drink from his well-stocked bar. I forgot that those who drink don’t usually trust those who don’t. I asked for orange juice, which he didn’t have. Needless to say, I didn’t get the juice and I didn’t get the job.

I had a similar experience with the Jewish Hospital in Denver that had specialized in treating tubercular concentration camp survivors. Their cautious Administrator felt that they could not agree to cover even part of my expenses. After years of effort in assembling evidence and contentious legal negotiations with several German ministries, I succeeded in settling the issue in favor of those clients who had authorized me to proceed on their behalf. I didn’t have the heart to leave the Denver Hospital out in the cold. When I mailed a check with a significant sum to the Denver Hospital, the new Administrator thanked me profusely for what he thought was a very generous personal donation.

It was particularly gratifying to present a sizeable check to the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) which had given my family and I refuge when we first arrived in America. The New York Association for New Americans (NYANA) was a delighted recipient of unexpected reimbursement from Germany. These agencies had been fully cooperative in gathering the evidence necessary to persuade the Germans to make reimbursement payments, and they were very appreciative of my unusual efforts. Since Sam Bronfman and the Canadian Jewish Congress had instructed me to do nothing on their behalf, that’s what I did, and unfortunately, that’s what they got.

Another drawn out case with medical implications concerned young Catholic women who had been victims of experiments while prisoners at the Nazi concentration camp in Ravensbrueck, Poland. For purely political reasons, West Germany refused to consider any claims from Nazi victims who resided behind the Iron Curtain. The argument was made that since West Germany had no diplomatic relations with Poland or other communist countries, claims from those areas were excluded. I always felt that such irrational discrimination was unjustified, but there was nothing I could do to change it. As far as I knew, no nation was ready to declare war on Germany again.

One day, in 1957, a very nice lady named Caroline Ferriday showed up at my office with an interesting plea. From her association with various anti-Nazi organizations, she had learned about young Polish women who had been shipped to the concentration camp at Ravensbrueck where they were subjected to a host of medical experiments. The record of such cruelties had been spelled out in the Medical Case at Nuremberg and I knew that the Nazis would commit any atrocity in the name of science. Miss Ferriday knew that I had helped Jewish claimants, and she wondered if I would also come to the aid of the Catholic ladies from Poland. My humanitarian concerns were never drawn along religious lines, and I promised to be of assistance.

After the United States dropped a nuclear bomb on Japan, the editor of the prestigious Saturday Review magazine, Norman Cousins, arranged to bring a group of “Hiroshima Maidens” to the U.S. for cosmetic surgery. They were treated by a Jewish surgeon, Dr. Hitzig, in a New York hospital in the hope that the humanitarian gesture might help to heal the wounds in more ways than one. The kindly effort at reconciliation received much favorable publicity. Miss Ferriday approached Norman Cousins with a request that he consider doing the same for the scarred young women of Poland who had been treated as “guinea pigs.” After some deliberation, Cousins created a committee of publicists to deal with it. I was invited to be the pro-bono Counsel. I took it upon myself to try to persuade the West German government to include the victims of medical experiments in their compensation legislation. The Germans absolutely refused to consider it. It didn’t take long for our committee to conclude that we absolutely refused to take “No” for their unkind answer.

“Never give up!” was the battle cry. Cousins arranged for a plane to bring a large group of scarred women from Warsaw to New York, courtesy of Pan American Airlines. The young ladies were greeted at the airport by the press, and were then taken to St. Patrick’s cathedral where the Cardinal made a stirring speech welcoming the once-fair maidens to our fair city. Arrangements were made for the young ladies to attend meetings in Washington with Congressmen who had significant Polish constituencies. All the publicity had the same plaintive song: “See what the Nazis did to these poor girls and the West Germans won’t give them a cent. For shame! For shame!” The German Ambassador in Washington had brushed off my first approaches. After listening to our plaintive melody, which was broadcast on radio all across the country, the embarrassed Ambassador began to change his tune. He showed me a copy of his cable to Bonn saying that it was not a legal matter but a political problem that had better be resolved quickly.

Soon, the West German cabinet held a special meeting to deal with the hot political issue. Trying to overcome the adamant German opposition to any payment, I had proposed that we set a fixed limit on the total cost. I knew I was not the most popular man in town, but I was standing by in the cabinet ante-room in Bonn if negotiations required my presence. The word soon came that the cabinet was willing to make a payment, but not via me. Rumor had it that I was regarded as a communist agitator trying to enrich himself. I wonder why they hated me so? I suggested they bring in the International Committee of the Red Cross. When that seemed agreeable, I flew to Geneva where the Red Cross stated it would accept the responsibility but only if there was no maximum set on the total. They would medically examine each applicant and pay agreed upon sums to three different categories of claimants depending upon the severity of the injuries. The German government, of course, would have to bear all costs. Having gone so far, the cabinet could no longer back out. The deal was sealed.

On June 22, 1960, the German cabinet passed a special resolution authorizing payments to victims of medical experiments, including those from the East. I even arranged that payments would be made in Swiss francs at a favorable rate of exchange, and could be spent by the beneficiaries for medical care in Switzerland. Having created the precedent, the German government was soon flooded with similar claims from medical experiment victims in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and other eastern countries. A few years later, one of my insider German friends, who handled Finance Ministry statistics, reported to me the amount actually paid out for victims of medical experiments. It was at least ten times more than what I had suggested for a quick global settlement. The unexpected outcome was another illustration that you can never know for sure what will turn out to be good luck. “Just keep trying and do your best” should always be the rule.

One of the health-related clauses which the West German government accepted for inclusion in the indemnification laws was the right of an injured Nazi victim to seek free rehabilitation at a German spa. It was argued that if the disability could be diminished, the compensation might be reduced. Israeli doctors, many of whom came from Germany, were quite accustomed to prescribing several weeks of convalescence in quiet surroundings. The indemnification authorities were happy to grant the request. It couldn’t do any harm, and it might help. Besides, the German spas would prosper. URO Board meeting were often held in such spas. I was always tickled to notice that many of the old ladies promenading through the lovely gardens and drinking the waters spoke to each other in Yiddish.