by Annette Mann

I’m a retired lawyer who decided one day in June, 2006 to put my skills to use and volunteer at Bet Tzedek Legal Aid office in Los Angeles, California. I called Robin Sommerstein (who is in charge of volunteers) and she asked me to come in the following morning for an interview. At the end of our meeting, she asked me if I spoke any other languages. I told her I spoke Hungarian. She then told me about a program that was starting the next day where volunteers will be assisting Hungarian families fill out applications for restitution from Hungary for losses in the Holocaust. She asked if that would interest me. How could it not? My mother was a survivor of Auschwitz and lost most of her family there. My father lost his family in the Holocaust and spent 5 years as a prisoner of war in Siberia.

A couple of days later, I showed up at Bet Tzedek’s library, along with many lawyers from various law firms in Los Angeles. Mark Rothman, Bet Tzedek’s director in charge of the Hungarian Holocaust Restitution program, told the attendees the history of the law and walked everyone through the process of gathering the necessary information to complete the application.

The law was pretty simple. Compensation would be paid by Hungary to a person who lost a parent, spouse, sibling or child in the Holocaust, if the victim was a Hungarian citizen at time of persecution or was taken from Hungarian soil for persecution. Also, there was restitution for forced labor at the hands of the Hungarian goverment to the person who performed the forced labor, so long as the forced laborer was alive in 1992. If the forced laborer died after 1992, and was survived by a spouse, the spouse could make the claim. If the forced laborer and spouse were both deceased, a child of the forced laborer could make the claim. This law was originally enacted in 1997. But many did not make the claim or pursue it because the amount of payment at that time was $150 per lost life. Many felt that sum was an insult or not worth the bother. Some abandoned their claims as demands were placed upon them for proof, birth certificates, death certificates, most of which did not exist. Later the Hungarian government increased the amount of compensation to $1,800 per parent, spouse or child, and $900 for loss of a sibling, but did not reopen the time to file a claim. So many lost out. The Hungarian government in April, 2006, reopened the window of opportunity to pursue this relief. The new deadline for the application was set for July 31, 2006.

I was present for the first clinic at Bet Tzedek, when about 50 Hungarians wanting help were scheduled to come and work with the volunteers. Volunteer notary publics were also present to notarize the necessary documents to support their claims. That first day, there were twice as many clients as there were volunteers to help them. Some clients had to wait several hours to be assisted, but eventually all were helped.

At one table one volunteer was working with an elderly lady asking her questions necessary for the application and another volunteer was across the table asking similar questions of another elderly lady. “Where were you born?” “What were your parents’ names?” As the questioning progressed, one of the ladies overheard the other’s answers and realized that they were from the same village. The two ladies then struck up a conversation and discovered that they had known each other 62 years ago. They did not recognize each other initially, but soon they were embracing and chatting happily. If the clinic accomplished nothing else, it was already a success, as far as I was concerned.

Bet Tzedek was overwhelmed by the calls for help. So instead of 3 clinics, as originally planned, more and more were added until over 300 people were helped and over 1,000 applications were generated. Each loss of life or forced labor claim required a separate application. A sister and brother came in for assistance. They had lost 16 people in their family. Between the two of them, that required preparation of 32 separate applications!

Bet Tzedek called upon the legal community for help in providing volunteer attorneys from all walks of practice to come and aid these applicants, and come they did. Corporate lawyers, entertainment lawyers, securities lawyers, many from some of the largest law firms in town, came and helped. They had no special expertise in this field, but they came because they were needed and there was a real feeling of doing a mitzvah. Many volunteeers returned for multiple clinics. By the last clinic which was only a few days from the July 31 deadline, there were more volunteers than applicants!

Each clinic had a multitude of memorable moments. One applicant was heard to invite the volunteer who assisted her to seder dinner with her family and the volunteer accepted. One disgruntled applicant who was called back for additional signatures on some documents suddenly beamed with joy when he saw his grand nephew in the room. His grand nephew was one of the volunteer attorneys and they hadn’t seen each other for almost a year. “God meant it to be that I should have to be here today” he chirped, as he hugged his grand nephew. At one clinic a young woman accompanied the applicant and stayed with her through the entire process. I assumed that it was the applicant’s granddaughter. I later learned that it was a complete stranger to the applicant. The elderly woman had met this young lady at a bus stop and the young lady took it upon herself to accompany this lady to the clinic and help her out. The daughter of one applicant came to the library asking if a volunteer could come down to her car. Her father wanted help with an application but was too weak to walk into the building. A volunteer took one of the chairs which had wheels from the library and went down to the car and helped the elderly gentleman get into the building, up the elevator and into the library where the necessary work could then be done. Attorneys and notary publics volunteered to go and did go to homes of homebound applicants so that their applications could be prepared.

Many tears were shed in the library also, as applicants were queried about the family members they lost in the Holocaust. “When did Shlomo die?” Where did Shlomo die?” The forms required specific information and many people knew or remembered only vague details, but the emotional wounds remained raw, even after 60 years.

At each clinic, a questionaire was completed in English. The next task was to transfer the information obtained into the applications, which were all in Hungarian and had to be filled out in Hungarian. I decided to volunteer for that task as well. I showed up for the first “workshop” expecting to see a room full of volunteers. To my shock, only one other volunteer showed up that day. Mark Rothman diligently sat with us and walked us through the form and what information needed to be put there. Bet Tzedek’s staff had prepared a “dummy form” which translated the application from Hungarian to English line by line. They had also prepared a glossary of Hungarian/English words so we could write in Hungarian the answer to what was being asked. The forms needed to be filled out line by line manually.

It was obvious that many workshops would be needed to complete the applications. Again, Bet Tzedek called upon the legal community to assist in this process, and with each workshop, more and more volunteers showed up. Many returned for multiple workshops. The workshops were all day, and as the deadline neared, they would continue well into the night. One volunteer arrived apologizing for being late due to traffic. “There’s no such thing as late.” he was told, “We are glad to have you here for whatever time you can give us.” Volunteers came from as far away as Orange County and Ventura County. The overwhelming need for assistance by applicants was fortunately thus met with overwhelming dedication of volunteers, and the impossible became more and more possible.

It was Friday, July 28. Thousands of pages still needed to be photocopied before they could be mailed. A copy for the file, a copy for the client, and the original to be sent to Hungary. Bet Tzedek’s staff”s families also became involved. Spouses, children, parents, significant others were involved in preparing the applications, photocopying, assembling, and getting them ready for mailing. There was something to do for anyone who was willing to do something.

Monday morning, July 31, the library was full of boxes filled with applications Hungary-bound waiting for the FedEx pick up. There was a palpable sigh of relief. We wondered what the reaction will be in Budapest when these boxes arrive.

As a footnote, on July 31, at 3 p.m., Los Angeles time, the Hungarian goverment officially extended the deadline for filing of applications for restitution to the end of this year. By that time, FedEx had already picked up the applications at Bet Tzedek
Thus, more applicants will have the opportunity to file claims. Bet Tzedek will continue to assist anyone wanting help with this process.