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Germany Agrees to Pensions for Iasi, Romania, Holocaust Survivors

Survivors from Iasi, Romania, are now entitled to small pensions. But they say recognition is just as important.
Image: George Herscu
George Herscu looks at pictures.NBC News

George Herscu's eyes filled with tears when he got the news: More than 75 years after he survived a Holocaust massacre, the German government had finally agreed to recognize his suffering.

"After so many years, justice is done," the 90-year-old said, crying in his Springfield, New Jersey, home.

"My mother, my father..." he said, his voice trailing off as he remembered his murdered family. "For me it's a little bit too late, you know. But it's just the fact that they recognized the barbaric way they killed my father."

Herscu is one of 1,000 survivors of what's known as the Iasi Pogrom, a 1940 roundup of Romanian Jews planned by Romanian and German officials.

For years, the Germans refused to compensate the Iasi survivors the same way it compensates those who made it out of concentration camps or were trapped in open ghettos.

But the Conference on Jewish Claims Against Germany announced Wednesday that it negotiated an agreement that makes Iasi survivors eligible for pensions.

Now the survivors who meet the criteria will receive pensions of about $400 a month and are eligible for more home care services. Herscu and his wife Sonia, who is also a survivor, will each get pensions.

The money can make a big difference to elderly retirees scraping by on fixed incomes, but for many survivors, that's not the focus.

"It's about the recognition from the German government," said Greg Schneider, executive vice president of the Claims Conference.

"It's a deep, emotional psychological issue."

Image: Bodies of Murdered Jews
Bodies of murdered Jews in Iasi.Radu Ioanid / via The Iasi Pogrom

The horror in Iasi began a week after Hitler invaded the Soviet Union. Police and soldiers in Romania, an ally of Nazi Germany, began attacking Iasi's 100,000-strong Jewish population.

Eight thousand were shot, stabbed or beaten to death — 5,000 of them in a public square. Another 7,000 were put on overcrowded trains where most of them died of heat, starvation or madness before reaching their destination.

Herscu, then just 13, escaped death by hiding in a cornfield, but his father was one of those passengers. A relative said he lost his mind and his life on the train, and his body was tossed off and buried in an unknown spot.

Those left were forced to live in one section of the city under a curfew, in fear of deportation and beatings or worse. Herscu said his mother and sister were shot dead three years after his father died on the train.

He married Sonia and they moved to Rome as refugees and then to the United States in 1966. Retired for 20 years from a career in graphic design, he now takes care of his wife, who recently suffered a fall.

For the last three years, the Claims Conference has been working to get compensation for the Iasi survivors. Germany was reluctant to recognize the city as a ghetto — which would entitle those who lived there to pensions — and said no three times, Schneider said.

On Wednesday morning, Lori Schuldiner Schor, social welfare program manager for the Claims Conference, arrived at the Herscu's home with news that Germany had finally relented.

"No compensation could ever repay you for your suffering, your losses, for the suffering of your family," Schor told him.

Herscu kissed her hands.

"I'm happy for humankind that succeeded in getting a little bit of justice. This is more important to me than anything else," he said.

He and Schor looked at photographs of a cemetery where some Iasi victims are buried and both began to cry.

But, he said, he was happy that he had made some contribution to the process by sharing his family's story.

"It came too late for me. But I'm very very happy that it happened," he said.

"Truthfully, I didn't think that one little insignificant person could say something that would make a difference."