Survivors gratified as banks waive wire fees on restitution payments

Bernard Broclawski died last year. And that was news to him.

The 86-year-old Polish-born Holocaust survivor was mistakenly recorded as dead last year by the Social Security Administration, which suspended his benefits and caused several health plans to drop him.

"They put me to death. And medical expenses for me are horrible because I am recovering from open-heart surgery and a bone fracture. They disenrolled me at the time I needed the most care. It was a horrible time for all of us," he said.

After three months of wrangling, Broclawski was allowed to rejoin the land of the living, but he did so with mounting financial needs. So he gratefully welcomed the news that his bank will cease charging wire fees on his and his wife's restitution payments.

A press conference announcing that agreement was scheduled yesterday in San Francisco by Jewish Family and Children's Services, the State Treasurer's office and Los Angeles-based Bet Tzedik Legal Services.

Roughly 100 banks and credit agencies including Bank of America, Bank of California, Citibank, City National Bank, Washington Mutual, Wells Fargo and World Savings have agreed to no longer charge the $10 to $40 wire fees on payments to survivors.

For Broclawski, a former Polish soldier wounded in battle against the Nazis, and his wife, Irma, who was a forced laborer, the savings come out to more than $100 a year.

"I wish it would be tens of thousands of dollars, but every dollar counts now. I'd rather contribute $25 to the Jewish community than let the bank have a couple of dollars. They don't need our money," he said.

"We are on a fixed income. Both of us are not rich people. We have never accumulated a lot of money. So what does this mean to us? Now everything means something to us."

In July, state Treasurer Phil Angelides sent a letter to more than 170 of California's financial institutions requesting they voluntarily waive wire transfer or processing fees on Holocaust reparations or restitution payments. These fees can often suck away 10 percent or more of a survivor's payment, noted Anita Friedman, executive director of the S.F.-based JFCS.

Cherie Golant, the coordinator of the JFCS' Holocaust survivor program, said she would be pushing business toward banks that had agreed to waive fees, and hoped other banks would do so as well or face the prospect of losing customers and stirring up bad public relations.

For survivors like Broclawski, the agreement will not only put some much-needed money in his pocket, it is also a moral victory. Why, he wondered, should others take a share of the money he and his wife earned through years of suffering?

Irma Broclawski, 78, convinced the Nazis she was a Polish Catholic, using forged documents, and she spent the war years as a forced laborer. She currently receives compensation payments from both Poland and Germany.

After being wounded in the opening days of the war, her husband escaped to the Soviet-controlled sector of Poland, where his family had fled ahead of him. He was offered the opportunity to earn money working "with the underground" in Siberia, and only after signing on did he realize he had been hoodwinked into working in a coal mine.

After a year in the mine, he became a German teacher in a Soviet high school. But he was later arrested by the KGB, which accused him of spying for the Nazis. He spent five years in the gulag before being returned to Poland in 1948. His father and brothers had disappeared, along with at least 100 members of his extended family.

The compensation money belongs to him and his wife, he stated forcefully, and they should be the ones to decide what to do with it.

"If I get the money, I will probably contribute a couple of dollars to the Jewish community, which is giving me, especially, and my wife some care," he said.

"I am a Jew and I went through hell. Why should [the banks] take away a couple of dollars?"

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.