Not Nock. … Albert.

29 Oct

I know you’re anxious to learn about my answer to Uncle Nock’s Serious Question, but you’re gonna have to wait. The Universe (in the form of my FB Nation) has fairly demanded that I tell you the tale of my #1 all-time favorite Nazi-killing Holocaust survivor client, Albert.

I introduced Albert to my FB Nation this afternoon, via this photo:

From L-to-RIMG_1138, you see: Stan (the resident rabbi at my former law firm, who also happens to be one of the co-founders of my current employer), Me, Albert (more on him in a bit), and Q (my ex-boss / quasi-dad / writer of The World’s Best EVER Letter of Recommendation).

Way back in early 2010, Q & I teamed up to assist Albert with filing applications for German pensions relating to the “voluntary” work that he and his deceased spouse may have performed while living in German-controlled ghettos. There is a WHOLE LOT of legal nuance baked into that set-up, but y’all don’t need to know about that. You just need to know that we tried to get him two (2) “ZRBG” pensions — one for himself, and one in his capacity as a widower of a potentially “ZRBG-eligible” survivor.

Albert’s widower’s pension application was finally approved in mid-2012 (after Q and I filed several rounds of documents + an administrative appeal following Germany’s untimely and nonsensical denial). He received a very healthy back-payment calculated from 2005 (a date mandated under German law as it existed at that time) and began receiving monthly widower’s pension payments as well.

Recently, Germany changed its laws regarding when and how to calculate back-payments: ZRBG pensions now can be calculated (and retroactively paid) all the way back to 1997 (the year in which the ZRBG pension program was first created). Albert came to Manatt today for the purpose of evaluating whether he should accept the recalculation of his widower’s pension.

Q remains Albert’s counsel of record on the widower’s pension claim and Q totally could’ve handled the recalculation discussion on his own, but he asked me to join the meeting at Manatt because (a) he missed working with me (awwww, so sweet!) and (b) we’d heard (through Stan) that Albert was hoppin’ mad about how I (allegedly) “abandoned” Albert’s personal pension claim.

Q promised Albert that I’d be there to personally answer his questions.

So, Albert shows up and immediately rips me a new one for how I “abandoned” him. I calmly explained (for about the 7th time in 3 years) what happened with his case and why he did NOT get approved for his own ZRBG claim and why we could NOT appeal that denial.

He let me know (again) how outrageous that was.

I (again) agreed wholeheartedly.

We both agreed that no amount of money from Germany could ever come anywhere close to making up for the horrors inflicted upon Albert, personally, and the Jewish community writ large.

We also agreed, as he began to unpack and display the many war-time artifacts he’d brought with him, that Albert’s story should be told to as many people as possible. He launched headlong into his well-rehearsed, highly impassioned war remembrance speech. I calmly deflected him by:

(a) reminding him that he needed to be at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust in less than an hour in order to speak to a group of school children;

(b) directing him to focus on discussing his reassessment/recalculation claim with Q; and

(c) promising him that I would continue to tell his tale and look for opportunities to get him more money from Germany.

Typical “pension reassessment” meetings last approximately 2 minutes, and the typical 2-minute conversation goes something like this:

[legal sidebar: The $ amounts in this story/script are very arbitrarily chosen and not at all representative; I’ve seen back-payments as high as $78,000 [after applying the currency exchange rate] and as low as $1,200 and I’ve see monthly pension differentials from $3-$250 — so if you are an HSJN member or ZRBG pension recipient reading this DO NOT THINK THESE NUMBERS APPLY TO YOU. Every case is different. These are not Albert’s numbers. I made them up.]

Attorney: Client-X, Germany wants to send you ~$20,000 next month. It will go directly into your bank account. It is not subject to any U.S. tax and it does not count against any public benefit qualifications. You will immediately receive $20,000 to use for whatever purpose you’d like. If you accept this $20,000 back-payment, your monthly pension payment will be about $50 less than what you currently receive. You’ll still get about $190 a month though. Or you can keep receiving the ~$240 each month with no change and no back-payment. What would you like to do?

Client-X: I get $20,000 now and I will still get $190 a month for the rest of my life? And none of it is taxed and it won’t affect my federal benefits?

Attorney: Yes.

Client-X: Where do I sign?

But, this was Albert, so the conversation immediately got derailed…

When Q told Albert that he’d get “$20k” to use however he’d like, Albert immediately interrupted and asked, in all seriousness: Cristin, is that enough to make you marry me? When I told him it would not, he was very far from pleased and even less  impressed with Germany’s “generosity.”

When Q told Albert that he’d start to get ~$50 less from Germany than he does now if he accepted the reassessment, Albert nearly went ballistic: They want to give me LESS? For my dead wife? I won’t stand for it. They could never pay me enough.

Q and Stan and I then took turns trying to explain the math behind the reassessment situation. Doing the math on his specific situation, Albert would need to live and receive his current pension for another 30.3 years in order to out-earn the proffered reassessment lump-sum.

Eventually Albert got it and calmed down. You could see the wheels turning though…

No. I won’t take it. I am only 89 years old! [He leaps to his feet, places his hands on his hips, elbows akimbo, and says to Q:] You are a young man, I want you to try to push my arms back even one inch. Use all of your strength. I bet you can’t do it. [Q turns beet-red, but gamely accepts Albert's challenge -- and, in fact, cannot do it. Albert is built like block of cement]. See! I am tough. I’m a fighter. They don’t give me nothing for what I did and I am not going to allow Germany to pay me any less for my dead wife.

Eventually, however, Albert agreed to accept the reassessment (but only after Q agreed to PERSONALLY makeup / pay for the difference when Albert turns 120) — even if it’s not enough to entice me to become his wife and notwithstanding the fact that he has not, and unfortunately cannot, receive any ZRBG funds for his own truly horrid history.

Which is really what this blog post is supposed to be about, but I had to set the stage.

And you need to go get a drink.

Go ahead, I’ll wait…

The Incredible, True Story of Albert R.

Chapter 1.  Albert in Greece.

Albert, a Sephardic Jew, was born in Salonika, Greece in 1925. The youngest boy of eight siblings, he was (according to him, and with all modesty) an “athletic, handsome lad” with bright blue eyes who liked sports, particularly boxing. Although Albert’s father was strictly religious (and in some tellings of the tale, the father is cast as a rabbi), Albert got to enjoy the normal pursuits of a teenager rather than studying Judaism.

When the Italians bombed Salonika in 1939, everything changed. Some bombs fell on his school and numerous children were killed or injured, although Albert and his sibling were fine. When the Germans occupied Greece, Albert was was made to wear the yellow star on his chest and the hardware store owned by his father was confiscated with a sign that said “This Property Belongs to the Third Reich.”

The family lost the business, Jewish homes were looted, and Albert was taken with all the young people to perform slave labor in Greece [legal sidebar: the fact that Albert repeatedly, and accurately, characterized his work in the Salonika ghetto as "slave labor" in other reparations applications is part of the reason he's ineligible for ZRBG]. For a year, Albert was assigned to a crew building roads. He was routinely beaten and numerous workers died from starvation or sickness.

One morning in 1940, Germans barged into his family’s home and began beating everyone with their rifle butts [personal sidebar: this time Albert remembered that I, too, had a lumpy skull so he made sure that Q and Stan got a chance to feel both of our lumpy skulls. Q declared mine lumpier, but Albert's more impressive for how it was obtained]. The German soldiers threw Albert’s grandparents, parents, and siblings into trucks.

Wearing only his underwear and no shoes, Albert and two of his older brothers, Daniel and David, were loaded onto a different truck from the rest of their family members. The trucks drove to the train station and the passengers were loaded onto cattle cars. Albert recalls that they traveled for 10 days until they reached the Auschwitz/Birkenau concentration camp in Germany. About 90 people were crammed into each cattle car with no food, water or toilets, and when they arrived in Birkenau, about half were dead and the stunned survivors laid on top of the corpses.

Chapter 2.  Albert 110362 in Birkenau.

Although the passengers had been stifled by heat and stink while trapped inside the cattle car, when the door finally opened, they saw deep snow on the ground. Being used to Greece’s mild temperatures, this was a tremendous shock and Albert was still only wearing his underwear and no shoes.

The soldiers yelled at them in German, but as a Greek Jew of Spanish descent, Albert spoke only Greek, Spanish, and Hebrew (at least at that time, by now he’s up to 10 languages). Because he didn’t understand the orders, the soldiers beat him. Albert opines that “the language problem and adjusting to such drastic cold made it virtually impossible for these Sephardic Jews from Greece to survive.”

A selection process began. Everyone under the age of 16 was sent to the gas chamber. There was a crematorium that burned continuously. Albert was only 15, but because he had such an athletic build from boxing, he passed as an adult. He ceased to be Albert. He became 110362. He witnessed young mothers who would not give up their children beaten or shot right on the spot.

In the barracks, the prisoners received a single blanket and slept 8-10 on a wooden shelf. Because he was nearly naked, Albert’s brothers took their blankets, piled them together and then slept with him huddled between them.

After being at Auschwitz/Birkenau for three weeks, Albert longed for news of his eldest sister, Luna, who acted as a second mother to him and cared for him as a baby. One day he heard from a bunk-mate that Luna was alive and he arranged with the man to switch uniforms so he could try to see her.

The other man worked in an area near where the women were laboring, while Albert worked in a coal mine. Knowing the guards only looked at a prisoner’s number on the uniform and did not match it with the tattooed number,  Albert said he thought it would be an easy ploy to get away with and besides, he promised the other, hesitant, prisoner two days of his food supply.

The plan worked.

Albert spied Luna across the chain-link fence. He remembered her as beautiful, with big, blue eyes and long, dark hair. Now she was skinny and filthy, her head shaved. “It broke my heart.” She was digging, supervised by female guards with guns, whips, and German shepherds. He stood by the fence and got her attention. “Do you know anything about my children?” she asked him. “My husband? Mommy and Daddy?” A guard quickly appeared and clubbed Luna on the head. She fell, as blood gushed. The guard continued beating her.

Albert tried to rip the chain link apart, yelling the only words he knew in German: “Work faster, God-damned Jew.” The guard unleashed the German shepherd, commanding the dog to kill. As the dog charged his throat, Albert instinctively used his training as a boxer and hit the dog with all his strength. They fought. Albert was mauled and, in his words, “left for three-quarters dead.” Still, he was ordered back to work. He later saw two women pulling a wooden cart. They picked up Luna’s body and threw it on top, “like trash.”

About a month later, Albert’s work crew was ordered to dig a trench for a pipe to run to the kitchen. Albert saw potatoes in the kitchen and when he had the chance he stole some. A guard noticed and attempted to shoot him with his rifle, but it jammed and so instead he began swinging his rifle, breaking a bone in Alberto’s knee. Albert’s brother, Daniel, saw this and began to beat the guard in an effort to protect Albert who was not able to get up.

The situation escalated. Multiple guards attacked Daniel and knocked him unconscious. Prisoners were ordered to take him to the gallows, where he was hung.

Chapter 3. Where Albert Gets Really Mad at Me.

In autumn 1943, months after the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, Albert and a large group of Greek Jews who spoke neither Polish nor Yiddish were transported from Auschwitz/Birkenau to Warsaw to bury the dead, whose decomposing bodies were piled up in bunkers.

At the end of the almost year-long assignment (whose details are WAY too gruesome for me to share here), they were commanded to blow up the remains of the ghetto.

[legal sidebar: The ZRBG pension is only available to individuals who performed voluntary work in a German-controlled (or, under newly liberalized legislation, German-influenced) ghetto. Albert's work as an undertaker had enough flexibility in it to allow me to characterize it as "voluntary" -- notwithstanding the fact that he was sent to Warsaw as part of an official Auschwitz/Birkenau work-detail. The REAL problem, and the reason why Albert cannot qualify for ZRBG, is that by the time he got to Warsaw it was no longer an official ghetto. The ghetto had been liquidated. The fact that Albert was burying the "liquidated assets" (i.e., bodies) is actually ipso facto proof of the non-existence of the ghetto. Odious. Disgusting. BEYOND unforgivable. But, sadly, not something I can fix and not part of the narrative that Albert wishes to share.]

Afterward, Albert was part of the forced “death march” from Warsaw to Dachau. He remembers that the group panicked when they reached a wide river, too deep to wade across. Soldiers stood on a small bridge, firing at them with machine guns as they tried to swim to safety.

Chapter 4.  Albert Escapes.

Albert managed to reach Dachau and was quickly transferred to Kaufering, a subcamp. One day, in January 1945, hearing they would be killed, he and seven prisoners escaped. Two were killed immediately (in some tellings they were shot, in others they freeze while attempting to run through the frozen forest), and Albert, running through the forest as fast as he could, said he “left part of my face and arms on the branches.”

To mislead the guards, Albert convinced the remaining escapees to deliberately walk backwards. After two days, they reached a farmhouse, where, ravenous, they ate from the pigs’ trough. And when the elderly farmer, a one-legged German civilian, began shooting at them, they dove into a pile of fertilizer. Albert weighed about 90 pounds and was freezing. He said: “Yes, it smelled like shit. It WAS shit, but the steam from the manure was like a jacuzzi to us!” They covered themselves in it, hoping to get warm.

After a few days, they saw two soldiers approaching, but Albert noticed that they didn’t look like Germans, as their complexion was darker. When Albert spoke in Spanish to his fellow escapees, one of the soldiers said, en Español, “We are American soldiers of Mexican descent – what can we do to help you?”

We need food!” Albert and his companions cried, and so they went back to the farmhouse with the Americans to confront the elderly man who had tried to shoot them. One of the Americans asked Albert if he wanted to shoot/kill the farmer, because Albert had continually been threatening/promising to kill any German he found in order to avenge his sister and brother who had been killed before his own eyes.

But Albert couldn’t do it. The elderly farmer pleaded for his life saying that his whole family had been destroyed, too.

So, Albert and his merry band of marauders took as much food as they could and went with the American troops. In a devastating twist, two of the escapees died from eating too much too soon due to malnutrition; there were just four men left.

Chapter 5. Albert Kills Nazis and Earns a Purple Heart.

The soldiers directed the 4 remaining Dachau escapees to a military encampment where Holocaust survivors were being helped. There, Albert scrounged for clothes and ended up with castoff uniform items. At some point he was mistaken for a regular soldier and he willingly went to fight alongside active-duty soldiers in an attempt to round up Nazis.

About a month into this stint, an Army colonel got shot and Albert and one of the other escapees volunteered to rescue him while still in the line of fire. Albert got shot in the knee but was able to reach the officer. The other escapee got shot and killed. Albert was given the honorary rank of Master Sergeant and awarded a Purple Heart for his actions (*you can see it in the center of the lucite plaque he’s holding in the photo above).

During his time with the U.S. Army, Albert got over the guilt that prevented him from killing the one-legged German farmer. He “got over” it when a Nazi plunged a bayonet into Albert’s gut (and he’ll be only too happy to show you his deep scar!). Albert became so adrenalinized that he broke the bayonet tip (still stuck in his gut) OFF of its mount; then yanked the device OUT of his gut and plunged it INTO the heart of the Nazi who had just attacked him.

Killed the Nazi with the Nazi’s own weapon, damn!

And if that’s not enough, Albert also decided to make use of a “skill” that he was forced to develop while working/burying bodies in Warsaw. The Nazis made him pull gold teeth from the rotting corpses in Warsaw and hand them over. Albert decided to do the same to the man he just killed.

This killing / pulling pattern was repeated often enough that after the war Albert was able to take the gold that he “earned” to a jeweler who made him a raised Star of David ring, which Albert all-too-gleeful used to “stamp” the faces of hapless post-war Berliners with whom he brawled.

Chapter 6. Epilogue

At the end of the war Albert and the two remaining escapees were sent to the Camp Feldafing hospital. He recuperated there for 3-4 months, gaining weight and exercising again at the hospital gym.

In 1946 he became an agent and recruiter for Irgun, the Jewish Resistance Movement that was heavily involved with the creation of the Israeli state. While on an Irgun recruiting trip in Austria, he met a beautiful blonde 16-year-old girl at a displaced person camp. She also was a Holocaust survivor with harrowing tales to tell–but neither of them told those tales (at least not yet). They kept them buried.

Albert and Betty married in 1947 and for two years, no one knew (not even Betty) that Albert was working for the Irgun. In May 1948, the British captured Albert for gun-running and imprisoned him in Cyprus. Because he was Greek, he was able to befriend a guard who helped him escape.

Albert made his way back to Betty in Salzburg. She was pregnant. They got American visas and came with their 6-month old daughter to Denver, CO. The other 2 escapees also immigrated to America. Albert learned English quickly (making it his 10th language on top of Greek, Spanish, Hebrew, German, Russian, Italian, Polish, and …. I forget the other 2). Sometime in the late 1950s he began to suffer from what we now know is PTSD. He began to beat his wife, convinced she was a Nazi spy, and then he lapsed into his “zombie” state, completely neglecting/forgetting about his wife and children. He was placed in a mental hospital and received electro-shock therapy.

That worked for awhile, but when he decided to end his treatments, the memories returned and his doctor advised him to keep quiet about his war-time experiences. The Dr. said that no one would believe Albert anyways.

So, for many years, Albert simply would not talk about the Holocaust.

Sometime in the 1980s, after visiting Disneyland, the family moved to Southern California — Albert hated the cold in CO; it reminded him too much of his winter of escape. He did not speak of his Holocaust experiences until 1999 when his children urged him to share his remarkable story of survival.

Albert now speaks regularly at Los Angeles’ two Holocaust museums and at local schools. He also annually addresses the Los Angeles Sheriff’s and Police Departments and at various U.S. military installations where he recently said: I owe my life to the United States. If it was not for the Americans, I would not be alive today. I could not fight by myself the whole German Army.”

(I’m not so sure about that, Albert!)

He has yet to find any law enforcement or military officer strong enough to push back his akimbo elbows even one inch.

* * * *

And that, my friends, is Albert.

And that, my friends, is why being a lawyer is awesome.

And that, my friends, is why I will never stop fighting the good fight — though I can promise you that I will not ever yank out anyone’s gold teeth at the end of my battles.

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