The judge who fought for pension claims of victims of the Nazi regime and changed the course of German jurisprudence
In 2002, at the age of 39, Judge Jan-Robert von Renesse became responsible for claims filed by ghetto survivors from Israel at the Higher Social Court (Landessozialgericht) in the German state of North-Rhine Westphalia (NRW). Five years earlier, a former seamstress had won her case before the Federal Social Court (Bundessozialgericht) to collect a German state pension for her time in the Lodz ghetto.
The court ruled that her work in the ghetto had met the criteria for a job subject to compulsory social insurance contributions. Subsequently, the German parliament unanimously passed the law which became known as the “Ghetto Pension Act.”
Claims for pensions
Around 70,000 former ghetto residents in Germany, the United States, and Israel then filed claims for pensions. The German pension funds denied about 93% of them.
The justification? Pension contributions can only be amassed by way of voluntary, remunerated employment. Work in the ghettos, the funds argued, had been forced labor and survivors were already entitled to compensation from the foundation “Remembrance, Responsibility and Future” (Erinnerung, Verantwortung und Zukunft, EVZ). Furthermore, 70 years after the fact, many survivors could not provide any proof of the dates of their work in the ghetto or that they had received remuneration for that work.
Nearly all of Renesse’s colleagues at the Higher Social Court in NRW sided with the pension funds. He chose a different path. Putting the case files to one side, he consulted experts on living conditions in the ghettos and dispatched them to archives across the globe to conduct research. 36 historians composed around 500 reports on working conditions in the ghettos, all commissioned by Renesse.
Their own stories
What’s more, he wanted to hear the victims tell their own stories. On account of the claimants’ advanced age, he promptly moved the court proceedings to Israel. Renesse, a tall and pleasantly reserved man, explains “I couldn’t imagine just sending out some questionnaire and saying ‘Here, write down what it was like in the ghetto in three lines. Forget that your parents were murdered there and just tell us, did you enjoy the work?’ – I couldn’t see that as anything other than demeaning. I couldn’t do it. I wouldn’t have been able to look at myself in the mirror.”
An expression of reconciliation
Renesse’s grandfather was a staunch Nazi. His wife is Polish. Her grandfather was murdered during World War II in a concentration camp and her father was sent to Magdeburg as forced laborer.
When the now elderly man received compensation for his forced labor, Renesse explains, it was not the money that mattered most to him. It was the fact that his story of suffering was recognized in Germany.
The judge heard similar sentiments expressed at the hearings in Israel. “When I think back to all the encounters I had in the courtroom,” Renesse remembers, “there was usually an expression of reconciliation because it was so important for many of the claimants to have the chance to tell their story one more time at the end of their lives. These extraordinary people, who endured so much and managed to build new lives, still had the grace, or magnanimity, to show an expression of reconciliation to a German – that will always stay with me.”
Renesse traveled to Israel and spoke with 120 survivors. He granted the pension claims in about 60% of the cases he reviewed.
Some measure of justice
Judge Renesse’s trailblazing effort also changed the course of jurisprudence. In June 2009, the Federal Social Court changed its ruling. Under the circumstances in the ghetto, employment could be considered voluntary wherever the claimant’s decision was between working and dying of starvation. And bread or soup could count as “remuneration.” The court ordered a review of all rejected claims.
Renesse helped many victims of the Nazi regime receive some measure of justice. Judge Renesse was honored in Israel. President Shimon Peres met him and he became the first German judge to address the Knesset. Back in his own courtroom however, he encountered resistance for his unorthodox working methods.
After the law was changed, Renesse was suddenly removed from all of his ghetto pension cases. He was even prevented from speaking to the press. His application for the post of presiding judge of one of the court’s judicial divisions was blocked. He was given a different remit where he now reviews disability status claims.
Dismissed for his good deeds
He has tried to involve policy makers in his case and filed criminal charges against his own court. Thus far, he has not been successful. In fact, the Higher Social Court has responded by launching disciplinary proceedings against him, apparently with the intent of removing him from his post.
This father of four however is not about to give up the fight. If necessary, he explains, he will take his case all the way to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. “If others were to draw the conclusion from my example that anyone who fights for a cause without a strong advocate will end up penalized, then the judiciary can no longer fulfill its true function. If the lesson is that we should avoid helping the weak at all costs, then that would be a disastrous consequence for our judicial system in Germany.”
Jan-Robert von Renesse is a Mentsh.
Julia Smilga works for the Bavarian state broadcaster (BR). Her radio documentary The Judge and the Victims was awarded the Prix Europa at the 2012 European Broadcasting Festival.