Pay For A Broken Spirit

Holocaust Survivor Wonders Why He's Alive, Would Give German Check To U.s. Museum

August 18, 2009|By Brent Jones | Brent Jones,brent.jones@baltsun.com

Food was scarce at the Nazi concentration camp, but the work was relentless. Morris Kornberg toiled day after day in a 1,500-foot-deep, pitch-black coal mine. His weight plummeted to 60 pounds, almost half what it is today.

The starvation diet and hard labor stripped him of not just his girth, but also of his will to live.

"When I was in Auschwitz, I gave up," he said. "I didn't want to live anymore. Whatever they were going to do to me, I just wanted it over."

And yet today, even as he recalls watching hundreds of his fellow prisoners kill themselves by running into the electric fence around the camp, he can't explain why he didn't do the same. Why did he live to tell about the horrific experience and eventually celebrate a 91st birthday in January? And why does he now stand to receive a check from the German government that attempts - at least symbolically - to atone for its World War II atrocities?

Kornberg doesn't have the answers; he just knows that, if his story is ultimately verified and he receives a 2,000-euro check from Germany, he will immediately hand it to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. It's a decision he made before June's fatal shooting of a security guard at the museum by a Maryland man with a long history of ties to neo-Nazi organizations, but one Kornberg feels even more strongly about now.

"For going through [the Holocaust], 2,000 is not a big deal," Kornberg said. "This is not for my enjoyment. I just don't want to leave the money for [the government]."

Germany established the German Ghetto Works Fund in October 2007 to distribute an undisclosed amount of money to survivors of its wartime camps who have not been compensated through other programs. The government estimates there are at least 50,000 Holocaust survivors worldwide, including 20,000 living in the United States, who qualify for the funds.

Kornberg, who lives in Waldorf, is one of more than 50 Maryland residents seeking restitution.

In January, he underwent a lengthy application process and follow-up interview, describing how he was arrested in his native Poland in 1941, then endured four years of confinement in concentration camps. If the German government verifies his story, he will be eligible for the one-time payment equal to about $2,800.

The government has already approved about 15,000 applicants internationally, officials from the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany said. The 58-year-old organization has negotiated compensation for Holocaust victims for decades and is monitoring the German government's distribution of the money, which is the same amount for each recipient under the program.

Kornberg is one of the few survivors willing to speak publicly about conditions in the concentration camps, according to groups that assist victims in getting reparations. The youngest of six children, Kornberg was born to a Jewish family in Przedborz, Poland. His father owned a business that supplied factories with raw metal materials. When Germany invaded Poland in 1939, Kornberg and his family were ordered to provide metal for the war.

But in 1941, Kornberg was arrested, beaten until he passed out, revived by having his head placed under a water pump, then beaten again. He was taken to Auschwitz and never heard from his family again.

Kornberg said he was one of the first Jews to arrive at the concentration camp, where conditions deteriorated to a virtually unliveable state in the two years he spent there. Kornberg's job was to fill underground holes where coal had been removed to prevent collapses. It was dangerous work with no pay, he said. Jewish laborers were given one day off a month, and Kornberg watched many detainees electrocute themselves.

"I didn't fight to survive. But I did survive," Kornberg said.

In the Baltimore area, lawyers for the firm DLA Piper are working pro bono with Jewish Community Services to find eligible survivors. The procedure is tedious, and the application, written in German, is intimidating, workers at the community organization say. But Barbara Gradet, executive director of Jewish Community Services, said some survivors who applied last year have received the reparations.

"They usually require lots of documentation," Gradet said. "Documentation about things that happened many years ago. It can be frustrating to the applicants. But they're entitled to these dollars. They've really suffered."

DLA Piper lawyers in Baltimore and Washington worked with Kornberg, and they also hold clinics about every six weeks in the region to explain the program. Melissa Hearn of DLA Piper said many of the survivors are hesitant to discuss their experiences.

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