On a spring day in May 1944, the Germans decide that Edith Denes from Munkács, Hungary, should die. A freight train is ready to deport the young girl along with her parents, siblings, grandparents, cousins, uncles and aunts. But Edith’s grandfather refuses to climb into the freight car. “A policeman shoots him in the head,” recalls Edith Denes, who was 14 at the time. Everyone now knew that something dreadful awaited them at the end of the journey.
Around May 25, the train arrives in Auschwitz. The doors open in the middle of the night and the exhausted people almost fall off the train. At the so-called ramp, a kind of platform, which is lit up as brightly as day, the Jews pass a man in an SS uniform who sends people to the left or right with a pointer. The new arrivals do not know in which direction they are being directed: to the labor camp or to the gas chamber.
“But we soon realized what was happening here,” says Edith Denes, now a 92-year-old woman with snow-white hair, who sits in her favorite green armchair in her apartment at the Summerwood nursing home near West Hartford, Connecticut, and remembers the time in camp remembered.
Arriving in Auschwitz, the girl narrowly escapes death. The mother holds the older daughter Viola by the hand and wants Edith to go to the other side, to the children and the elderly. “She probably thought I was safer there,” says Edith Denes.
The German who divides the crowd sees this and says to Edith: “You silly, it would be a shame about you!” Then he grabs her and lifts the girl back to her mother. “That was Josef Mengele,” says Edith Denes. Ironically, the man who had sent hundreds of thousands to the agonizing gas death during the “selection” and carried out pseudomedical “experiments” on twins saved her life.
Edith’s barracks are right next to the crematoria. “At night I heard the screams and the crying of the people who arrived,” says Edith Denes. It was the time of the so-called Hungary Action, in which the Germans murdered 565,000 Jews within a few months in 1944.
Mother and daughters sort the clothes of the murdered, which are piled up in piles. Thousands of jackets, trousers and shirts are piled up there. “Then I saw my cousins’ pants and jackets,” says the 92-year-old. her voice breaks. She buries her face in her hands. “Can we take a break?”
Edith Denes does not need a walker when moving around her apartment. The woman with the big smile is wide awake and remembers the smallest details from her life. The only thing she doesn’t like to dare is the experiences from Auschwitz. “It’s too sad and too terrible.” There is a reason why she reported it again on this April day in 2022.
Edith Denes is fighting for a pension from Germany, which she is entitled to under the Federal Law on Compensation for Victims of National Socialist Persecution (BEG) – actually. But the Munich State Office for Financial Services has been denying her that for decades.
The reason: In 1961 she failed to “participate” in her application for a pension, and she lost a lawsuit filed in 1968 before the district court. The case was finally closed, the clerk T. informed her in a letter in 2013 and regretted that she “unfortunately could not send any other message”. Her mother and sister, who lives in Florida, were always by her side during the years of persecution – and received the BEG pension. The three suffered together in the Munkács ghetto, in Auschwitz and in the Ravensbrück and Neustadt-Glewe camps. Finally, on May 2, 1945, they were liberated. It can’t be,” says Denes, “that I don’t get anything.”
Edith Denes’ case leads into the depths of German history and the federal German attempts to “master” the past. Two law firms are now fighting for the pension, which is actually supposed to “make up for” what Germany did to women.
Nils Johannsen, a specialist lawyer for social law in Berlin, has campaigned for the claims of forced laborers in recent years and is now fighting for Edith Denes. “Rarely have I seen a case where the office is so hard-hearted and unyielding,” says the lawyer. He has now filed a lawsuit with the Munich Regional Court.
In Boston, the Mintz law firm has taken on the matter. The partner Douglas Hauer wants to help Edith to get her rights. “There is money for Holocaust memorials, but not for survivors? That’s wrong,” says Hauer.
The lawyer can understand Denes’ struggle particularly well. He describes himself as an American-Jewish lawyer. Some of his relatives survived the Holocaust. “I know so many Auschwitz survivors who at some point no longer had the strength to deal with the bureaucrats in the compensation office,” says Hauer. The lawyer wrote a letter to Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock (Green Party) asking her to take on the case.
At the Munich State Office alone, which was responsible for the survivors who had emigrated to the USA, 116,254 cases ended in legal disputes. On the other hand, 470,000 procedures were completed. A frequently used reason for a refusal was that the applicants allegedly could not prove how badly they suffered from the after-effects of the torment. And the survivors had to have been imprisoned in a camp or ghetto for at least twelve months. That’s what the law says. That’s why there is the “Haftstättenverzeichnis”, the official catalog of all ghettos and concentration camps that the Germans had set up in Europe. But many probably did not live to see those twelve months, because Jewish prisoners only survived an average of three to four months in a concentration camp.
Edith Denes knows the arguments of the authority: the state office accuses you of not having “participated” in the procedure in 1961, shortly after she had submitted the application. At that time, the office required documents documenting the damage to her health.
Edith Denes worked as a seamstress in a factory in Port Jervis near New York. “I had my hands full to support my family,” says Edith Denes. “With a lot of effort, the Germans managed to track down my family in a small village, put them in a ghetto and organize the transport to Auschwitz. Shouldn’t they have taken care of my pension?”
Such a question rolls off to the officials. In a letter to Edith Denes dated June 5, 2013, you point out, among other things, that the then 14-year-old had allegedly been imprisoned for less than twelve months. The five to six weeks in the Munkács ghetto didn’t count, since it wasn’t listed in the detention center register. In the logic of the German bureaucracy and its laws, Edith Denes resisted the German will to annihilate for three weeks too briefly – and therefore has to forgo her pension. But the reasoning is not correct: the Foundation for Remembrance, Reappraisal and Future listed the Munkács ghetto on May 27, 2001.
After two death marches, Edith Denes was finally liberated in Neustadt-Glewe with her sister and mother on May 2nd. She met her husband George in a camp for displaced persons. Together they moved to Israel until they emigrated to the United States in 1958.
Her life there was hard. “I would have loved to be a pediatrician,” she says. “That was my dream.” But without a school diploma, it was unthinkable. In 1944 Edith got a place in a Jewish high school for gifted children in her native Hungary. However, because the Germans occupied the country, the school closed before it could start there.
Again and again Denes tried to get her pension. Once she came to Munich on a trip to Europe and just went to the office. She asked to speak to an employee to clarify the BEG pension. They made her wait below.
After a few hours, an officer came to her in the reception hall and told her that unfortunately there was nothing he could do. Goodbye. At the request of WELT AM SONNTAG, the state office did not want to comment on her case because the case is pending in court.
Edith Denes wants to keep fighting. She draws her strength primarily from religion. “Judaism means a lot to me,” she says. On this afternoon of April 28, she still has an important appointment. It is the Jewish day of remembrance of the Holocaust, Yom Hasho’ah, people light candles for the dead, the rabbi gives a short speech and says prayers. “We are here today to remember all those who cannot be with us because they were murdered,” he says.
Edith Denes holds the candle with both hands and looks down. She is one of the last survivors in the home. And then she joins in the prayer for the dead, Kaddish: Exalted and hallowed be his great name in the world, which he will renew. He quickens the dead and brings them up to everlasting life.