William Marks was a young lawyer in Washington D.C. in 1992 when he received a providential phone call from his brother-in-law.
“He asked me if I wanted to meet this guy, Hugo Princz, the custodian where he worked,” Marks recalled. “He said the guy had an interesting story that he couldn’t stop talking about and I might be able to help him.”
Marks met Princz at a Shabbat dinner, one that changed his life and that of Princz.
That change is connected to Marks’ history of working to obtain reparations and restitution for Holocaust survivors. Marks will speak about that work at 7 p.m., Thursday, Sept. 7 at the Ovation Jewish Home. The event is sponsored by Jewish Family Services and Nathan and Esther Pelz Holocaust Education Resource Center of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation.
Princz was a survivor of Auschwitz and a slave laborer in the Nazi war effort. His parents, brothers and sisters perished either in concentration camps or as the Nazis moved through their homelands.
Princz and his family were American citizens who were in Europe despite attempts to get out in 1938 and 1939. His father, Herman, was living in Czechoslovakia operating a business that leased combine harvesters to local farmers. Czech neighbors pointed out that the family was Jewish.
Herman Princz was a naturalized American citizen and that gave his Czech-born children citizens’ rights as well. Instead of turning the family over to the Red Cross for transport to the United States, the German SS confiscated the family’s passports and identification papers, first detaining them as enemy aliens then sending them to concentration camps.
“It was a miracle that he survived,” Marks said. “He was in seven different camps or ghettos.”
It was not until April 1945 when a train he was on as it headed toward the Alps was liberated – by the U.S. Army. Because his prison garb carried a USA designation, Princz was sent to an American hospital and eventually to the states where he resettled in New Jersey.
In the 1950s the German government passed legislation that provided payments and pensions to survivors of prison camps. Princz applied and was denied because it was deemed that because he was not a refugee – as an American citizen he had a country to go home to – and the pension law did not apply to him.
Outside the survivor community, few were aware that thousands of survivors like Princz were denied compensation, Marks said.
Princz, who had another lawyer at the time, filed a lawsuit in U.S. federal court in 1992. He won at the district court level but the decision was overturned on appeal. Princz’s chances of a court remedy appeared bleak when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear his appeal, thus ending the lawsuit.
Marks was a young lawyer with Powell Goldstein in Washington D.C. when he met Princz.
After getting his undergraduate degree in political science from Harvard, Marks had headed to the nation’s capital to make his mark. For two years he worked on the American Israel Public Affairs Committee before taking a job with Rep. Meldon Levine, then a Democratic Congressman from California. While working on the hill, Marks went to Georgetown Law School at night.
After meeting with Princz, Marks convinced his law firm to take the case. Stuart Eizenstat, his supervisor at the law firm who later became a prominent diplomat, did the bulk of the legal work while Marks said he handled “the non-legal side,” Marks said.
That meant educating politicians to the Princz’s plight and generating interest in passing legislation that would allow Princz to sue Germany in the US by overcoming the grounds that led to the earlier case’s dismissal.
In 1995 President Bill Clinton specifically brought up the Princz case when he met with Chancellor Helmut Kohl. After that meeting Germany agreed to pay reparations. Princz and 11 others shared a $2.1 million award. Princz later received other funds from companies that used slave laborers.
Princz died in 2001.
Marks went on to form his own law firm in 1996 and has worked with German lawyers to obtain compensation for more than 20,000 survivors worldwide who were either denied compensation or deserved more.
“When I met Hugo, with my limited understanding as a lay person, I thought why wouldn’t Germany pay him?” Marks said. “Little did I know that the reparations programs had all these rules, regulations and caveats and basically Hugo was being denied because he was an American citizen.”
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How to go
What: William R. Marks, Esq., speaker on the legal battle for Holocaust reparations and restitution. Marks, an attorney, began specializing in Holocaust-related compensation claims against Germany 20 years ago, after his success in the case of American Holocaust survivor Hugo Princz.
When: Thursday, Sept. 7, 7 p.m.
Where: Ovation Jewish Home, Rubenstein Pavilion, 1414 N. Prospect Ave., Milwaukee.
RSVP: BrittanyH@MilwaukeeJewish.org or 414-963-2714.