Day to Day, July 22, 2008 · After more than 60 years, Holocaust survivors who worked in German-controlled ghettos during World War II may be eligible for a reparation payment by the German government.

The German Ghetto Work Payment Program fund was established last September as a goodwill gesture to help aging survivors of the hundreds of ghettos, many of which were closed off by barbed-wire fences and walls.

Jews would sweep the streets, haul lumber and sew uniforms in exchange for the bare necessities of clothing or food. Once Hitler’s Final Solution began, the ghettos were destroyed and occupants deported to forced-labor and extermination camps.

Today, an estimated 20,000 eligible survivors live in the United States. Free legal clinics to help survivors apply for reparations are being held in cities across the country.

On a recent day, 80-year-old Albert Davis walks into a small room at the Jewish Family Services office in West Hartford, Conn. He’s one of 22 Holocaust survivors who’ve come to apply for funds from the program.

The son of a butcher, Davis was born Abraham Davidovitz. He lived in Sighet, Romania, and when he was 13, his family was sent to the Sighet ghetto.

“We dig ditches. They rounded us up. They took us out about five, six miles in order for to dig ditches there,” he says. “After a year, a year and a half, they took us and they put us in a big synagogue before they send us over to Auschwitz.”

Davis’ family was killed in the concentration camp.

In Auschwitz, Davis says, Nazi officers ordered him to show his hands, which are big. Those hands dug trenches in the camps, repaired machines, did plumbing and saved his life. After the war, Davis made his way to Hartford, where he worked for 35 years as a meat cutter at a Jewish deli.

“They took all my youth…. They took it away from me,” he says.

It took many survivors years to talk about their experiences, but survivors must describe their persecution history and include specific places and dates. Attorney Eric Goldstein says they also have to verify that their ghetto work was “voluntary.”

“That is a troublesome aspect to the application,” Goldstein says. “But as long as the work wasn’t done under an imminent threat of physical violence, at the point of a gun or the tip of a bayonet, the German government will consider that to be quote unquote voluntary.”

Only living survivors may apply for the one-time 2,000 euro payment (about $3,000). Davis says that, for him, the money means less than the fact that what happened to him is being recognized.

“They can never make up for the things we lost. Never. All the money cannot help. I could be bitter about it, but I’m not,” he says. “You see, like somebody says, could be half empty or half full.”

Diane Orson reports for WNPR.