We Won! … and that totally f*cking sucks.

8 Aug

When I left Manatt, I took one very special pro bono client with me: My “adopted Jewish grandma,” Goldie. In 2008, I helped Goldie (and her husband, George) obtain a one-time €2,000 Holocaust survivor’s reparation payment from Germany. Subsequently, in 2010, I helped them apply for life-time, on-going German pension funds.

Germany approved George’s application quickly. He received a retroactive check for ~$23,000 and has continued to receive ~$325 each month. These funds couldn’t have come at a better time. Not more than 6 months after George’s pension application got approved, he suffered an aneurysm with follow-on complications that hospitalized him for 3 months and left him significantly disabled. The German reparations funds enabled Goldie to hire an occasional caretaker/aide.

Goldie’s application was more complicated. She was very young when the Holocaust visited its horrors upon her. I counseled her that Germany might deny her application based on her age.

In fact, Germany, did deny her submission, but for all the wrong reasons — not that there ever could be a “right” reason for denying reparations to a Holocaust survivor! Frickin’ Germany.

Activate Angry Attorney Z.

I filed an appeal. Germany came back with a series of ridiculous questions. We answered those. They came back with a new form — one that I’d never seen in any of the 80+ reparations cases I’d handled. We completed that. They asked for formal declarations. We did those. They sat on the massive pile of truth and proof for months.

Goldie called, emailed, and/or texted (yes, texted, she is one savvy senior citizen!) me nearly every week, bemoaning the fact that Germany was “just waiting for her to die.” I assured her (with little actual confidence) that “No news is good news; they’ve at least stopped asking questions and if they were going to deny you, they would do so quickly to get rid of me because they know I can’t make an appearance in German court.” I had NO idea if this was anywhere near the truth, but it at least calmed her down a bit.

We waited.

Three months went by. We sent a polite “please update us” letter. They remained silent for 3 more months. Another, less polite “status inquiry” letter followed. More silence. Goldie’s hysteria became nearly incapacitating — for both of us. Two days before I left for Europe I spent $56 to deliver a last-ditch, final, very-sternly-worded letter to Germany, reminding them that they had been sitting on her fully-documented appeal without any additional inquiries or responses for almost a full year.

I received their response on Monday. It was dated July 29, 2013 — exactly 1 year after we had submitted the last round of supplemental (spurious, horseshit) appeals material.

Her application was APPROVED.

(win!)

She would receive €17.24 (i.e., ~$23US) per month. Her retroactive payment would be €741.55 (~$988) to reflect the fact that her initial pension application was filed in December 2010.

(deep sigh)

We spent more in postage costs sending things to Germany over the past ~3 years forchristssake than she would receive in recognition of her circumstances. G*ddammit all.

For the last 3 days I have fretted and stewed and worried about how to share this news with Goldie.

Here’s how I concluded the email I just sent to her:

Germany has finally recognized that you qualify for their special pension program. They have acknowledged that you were subjected to work conditions that deserve remuneration. Their payment calculations are not generous. The pension you will receive obviously does not come anywhere close to being “enough” to compensate you for what they took from you, but these are the rules of their program. Germany is not known for justice or compassion.

You must take heart in knowing that other people in the world, like your pro bono attorney (!) have stood beside you and fought for you to make sure that at least Germany acknowledges that payment is owed to you. As far as I know, Goldie, you are THE youngest survivor in the entire country to have qualified for this program. That, in and of itself, is something to celebrate.

I send you warmth and hope that you and George are doing well.

This is the worst pro bono “win” of my career.

I’m going to go ride my bike now.

I dread the messages from Goldie that I know will await me upon my return.

9 Responses to “We Won! … and that totally f*cking sucks.”

  1. Wolfe, Sheldon August 8, 2013 at 11:10 am #

    Wow! please take some comfort in the fact that You did all the right things for no compensation.

    Sheldon H. Wolfe
    Manatt, Phelps & Phillips
    One Embarcadero Center
    30th Floor
    San Francisco, Ca.
    94111
    (415) 291-7432
    Fax: (415) 291-7503

    • justadventures August 8, 2013 at 11:11 am #

      Thanks, Sheldon. This was a tough one all around.

  2. Jenn Fernandez (@jennfern) August 8, 2013 at 11:39 am #

    Oh Z, what amazing triumph and heartache rolled into one. Kudos to you on your tenacity and your overwhelmingly tough spirit to get it done. No matter what, Goldie and George (and all your other clients) are blessed to have you in their lives (as am I).
    xoxo
    jennfern

  3. Wende Nichols-Julien August 8, 2013 at 12:12 pm #

    I don’t know, Z. I think that, here, a victory is a victory. What you said in your message to her is right, no amount would suffice. But a check every month from Germany means that in some little way, you and Goldie chipped away at the immeasurable injustice done to her and her family. It’s small and almost insulting chip, but you helped her beat the Nazis. I read something interesting in one of Paulo Coelho’s books (I think it was The Aleph) that talks about the false idea that “what’s done is done.” It suggests that harm (or bad karma created) in the past can in fact be undone by justice (or good karma) at a later time. How could she, as a little girl, have fought back against the Nazis? Well, she could do it by surviving, by living, and by, after seven decades, finding a tireless and brilliant advocate who would prove that she was wronged. You and Goldie have righted a wrong. Just a little bit, but that little bit counts for a lot.

    I admire you, and your tenacity. And I’m sure Goldie does too.
    -Wende

    • justadventures August 8, 2013 at 2:11 pm #

      I love you, Wende. Thank you for this. Big (happy) sigh…

  4. Julia R. Wilson August 8, 2013 at 1:41 pm #

    CLEARLY this is an on-going injustice – but there *is* more to Goldie’s outcome than just the restitution – there is some value in the power of having been heard, the value of one’s story being recognized as “true” (in whatever that means, really), of naming what happened, both publicly and proudly, and having been acknowledged. All of that, ultimately, is also part of the repair – both for the individual and one some odd level, the world. So, yes, YUCK YUCK YUCK – but also still important and of real value. We cannot measure the power of legal victories on pure ROI – sometimes the return is more diffuse.

    • justadventures August 8, 2013 at 2:15 pm #

      I can accept the concept of diffusive justice if, and only, when it induces a ripple effect a la the famous RFK quote. I hold out hope that the resonance may embolden others to act.

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