The Struggle for Recognition of the Northern Caucasus Jews as Holocaust Survivors
David Yadid Attorney and Notary
During WWII the Germans occupied the northern Caucasus for five months (from mid-1942 to early 1943). The Germans maintained their control of Nalchik, the capital of the autonomic republic of Kabardino- Balkaria of the Russian federation for about two months.
During that time, a few thousands “Mountain Jews” lived in the northern Caucasus with a few thousands Ashkenazi Jewish refugees from Poland and Russia, who fled the Nazi persecutions. (The mountain Jews considered themselves as descendants of the Jews who were exiled by Tiglath-Pileser III-King of Babylon in the first temple period).
The Nazis slaughtered all the Ashkenazi Jews of the area and some small communities of mountain Jews. However, the Jews of Nalchik were only concentrated in a sealed ghetto that was in “Kolonca Hebraica” (Jewish colony).
The Jews of Nalchik were taken to forced labor on a daily basis; some of them were incarcerated in a camp in the proximity of Nalchik, and were subject to hunger, torture and daily humiliations.
Many of Nalchik’s Jews were able to escape death, while claiming that while they maintain practices of the Jewish religion, they are not genetically Jewish.
Fortunately, their Muslim neighbors aided them by affirming that thesis. The German commander sent this matter for a check in The Ethnographic institute in Berlin (which was under the influence of the SS) and received a negative result (The mountain Jews should be considered as all Jews and to be sent for extermination). However, thanks to good military intelligence, the Red Army managed to liberate Nalchik on time. The results from the institute took some time to arrive, which gave the Jews on Nalchik a lifesaving extension.
A Jewish Colonel in the Red Army that is originated in Nalchik managed to liberate the area one day before the Jews of Nalchik were to be exterminated by the Germans. That way, about 3000 mountain Jews from Nalchik were saved. Out of those who survived 1000 are still alive. About 700 live in Israel, 100 in the USA and Canada, 200 remained in Nalchik and 100 in other places.
Despite all the hardships they went through, the Authorities of Israel and Germany refused to recognize the mountain Jews as Holocaust survivors. It took many years and a lot of legal actions as well as lobbying to achieve such recognition.
It is important to understand, that the Jews of the Caucasus have not been a part of the Holocaust’s known Jewish narrative. Even though I have been working in the legal field of the holocaust for more than 30 years, I have only been exposed to this issue in 2008.
Our office acknowledged the injustice that was caused to the Jews of the northern Caucasus and particularly to the Jews of Nalchik. We took the responsibility and mission to represent most of the Caucasus’s Jews who live in Israel and abroad versus the German and Israeli authorities as well as the Claims Conference (A body that was acknowledged by the governments of Israel and Germany as the representative of the world’s Jewry, in claims against Germany for compensation of the Nazi persecutions’ victims).
A short time after most of Nalchik’s Jews immigrated to Israel in the 1990’s, I have represented them in proceedings versus the claims conference. The representation led to a one time compensation from the government of Germany. The Jews of Nalchik and the Caucasus were not entitled to a monthly pension (Rente), due to the short time they were under Nazi occupation (2-5 months and not 18 months as required).
The Israeli “Nazi Persecutions’ Handicapped People Law” grants rights to holocaust survivors who immigrated to Israel until October 1st 1953 (According to the reparation agreement, West Germany paid Israel billions of DM, and Israel was obligated to compensate holocaust survivors who had Israeli citizenship at the time).
In order to aid holocaust survivors who immigrated to Israel after 1953, the “Benefits Law” of 2008 was legislated. The Benefits law grants rights to holocaust survivors who immigrated to Israel after October 1st 1953, provided that they were in a recognized ghetto or camp.
Our office started to submit claims for recognition of the Jews of Nalchik as holocaust survivors. The claims were submitted after our office conducted historical research and was aided by historians who specialized in the history of the Caucasus during WWII.
Due to the short time the Jews of the Caucasus spent under Nazi occupation and the lack of entitlement to sue a monthly pension from Germany, our office submitted the claims to the Israeli Ministry of Finance. Our argument was that Nalchik’s “Kolonca Hebraica” was a ghetto, and that this fact should be recognized in accordance with the law’s criterions.
A short time later, when the German Social Insurance Institution changed its policy, our office submitted pension claims on behalf of the Jews of Nalchik to the German Social Insurance Institution. After a struggle, our argument was accepted and the Jews of Nalchik, who worked for the Germans, were recognized as entitled to a pension from the German Social Insurance Institution in addition to a one time compensation from the German Ministry of Finance.
At the same time, legal battles dealing with recognition for the Jews of Nalchik under the Benefits law of 2008, continued in Israel. The struggle included professional opinions of expert historians as well as testimonies of holocaust survivors. On the other side, the Israeli Ministry of Finance strongly opposed the recognition, and even took the effort of submitting a professional counter opinion to the court. The different judges from the magistrate and district courts in Beer Sheva, Tel Aviv and Haifa, showed great sympathy towards the Jews of Nalchik, however, their ruling denied recognition on lake of judicial authority of an Israeli court, to expand the closed list of ghettos that was decided by German and Austrian funds that were already closed.
Alongside the struggle, our office lobbied for a legal change in the Knesset for recognition of the Jews of the Caucasus, with the help of MK Shai Hermesh. Eventually the Ministry of Finance managed to prevent MK Hermesh’s law from being passed in the Ministers Committee of Legislation. We also used the help of the coalition’s chairman (MK Ze’ev Elkin). His positive view on the issue later influenced the Ministry of Finance willingness to accept the Supreme Court’s recommendation on the issue (which will be discussed hereafter). Many others also tried to assist our lobbying efforts. We met with the Minister of Improvement of Government Services, Michael Eitan, we also met with Minister Yossi Peled, which had the treatment of holocaust survivors under his responsibility. We also involved Prime Minister Netanyahu and the Ministry of Senior Citizens.
After the attempts in courts of first and second instance did not succeed, our office had no other choice but to address the Supreme Court in Jerusalem.
Eventually, the fact that the German Social Insurance Intuition decided to include the ghetto of Nalchik in the list of the entitling ghettos caused the Supreme Court to recommend the Ministry of Finance to recognize the Jews of Nalchik as holocaust survivors under the Benefits law of 2008. The Supreme Court was convinced that the list of entitling ghettos is not a closed one. It concluded that a ministry of finance or a court can decide, on base of testimonies, that a certain place is a “recognized ghetto”.
As a result of the abovementioned actions, the Jews of Nalchik are recognized by both the Israeli Ministry of Finance and the German Social Insurance Institution. Lately, due to a change of its policy, the Jews of Nalchik can also submit claims for compensations to the Claims Conference. Today, many of the Jews of Nalchik can live in relative welfare, thanks to significant benefits they receive every month. Those benefits are a direct result of the struggle for their rights.
Thanks to another legal change, they also receive exemption from paying for medicines, annual Recuperation payment and other benefits.
Besides the professional satisfaction, my office and I are satisfied that we caused a major improvement in the welfare of hundreds of the Caucasus’ Jews. Our achievement helped them to avoid impoverished life of scarcity and corrected an historical injustice.
We consider the result as poetic justice: whoever had to deny his Jewishness in order to save his own life from the Nazis during the war is now enjoying benefits from both Israel and Germany as a proud Jew.
The precedent of Nalchik helps us to achieve recognition for other Jewish communities who suffered from Nazi persecution. It proves that one must be determined, persistent and sometimes even stubborn when dealing with the Israeli Ministry of Finance or the Government of Germany in order to achieve for those in need.