Toward the end of 2014, my wife and I traveled to Eastern Europe. The trip focused on Jewish history, particularly during World War II with stops in Berlin, Prague, Budapest, Warsaw and Krakow. The trip had special meaning for me because my grandfather’s family was killed during the Holocaust. While the entire trip was incredibly enlightening, the visit to Auschwitz was a very profound experience for me. Auschwitz and Birkenau have to be among the saddest and darkest places on earth. The atrocities that occurred at Auschwitz were horrifying; but Birkenau, often called Auschwitz II — which was massive — about 400 acres – was overwhelming in both its size and the number of people it imprisoned and murdered.
When I returned from this trip, I started thinking about how I could become more involved in pro bono work on behalf of Holocaust survivors, victims and their heirs. Through a series of conversations with various people, I was recommended to the World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO) in New York which pursues restitution of private, communal and heirless property in Eastern European countries.
I thought I’d be doing ordinary pro bono work, but it’s turned out to be much different. In June 2016, I was part of a small WJRO delegation to Lithuania to meet with Lithuanian officials and, in December 2016, I headed a delegation to Serbia to participate in a conference and speak with high-level Serbian government officials about restitution issues.
Serbia has the only law in Eastern Europe that provides for restitution of heirless property. The government has pledged to pay nearly one million Euros a year for 25 years to support the Jewish communities in Serbia and for the benefit of Holocaust survivors. I met with the deputy Foreign Minister and president of the Parliament among others to encourage them to ensure that the first payment was funded and made. That distribution occurred in January 2017.
I’ve made a couple trips since then to Bosnia & Herzegovina and most recently to Poland to protest a proposed law that would essentially disenfranchise Holocaust survivors and many of their heirs from making claims for private property that was confiscated during and after the War. This proposed legislation has drawn formal protests from Israel and diplomatic protests from the United States and many other countries. It has since been sent back to the Justice Ministry for further study.
This work is very challenging and difficult. It takes patience and perseverance. The process requires a resolute focus on trying to obtain some small measure of justice for people who lost so much and trying to be an advocate for people who have no voice. I often feel that I get to use all of the skills and experience I’ve acquired over the course of my career as a prosecutor and in private practice.
But, time is running out. It’s been more than 70 years since World War II. The number of Holocaust survivors, and even their heirs, is decreasing.