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Were These Holocaust Survivors Forced Into a Ghetto? The Answer Will Determine Their Financial Future

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She was only 6 years old when the pogrom began, but Frances Flescher remembers everything.

As a little girl, Flescher was part of the substantial Jewish population of the Romanian city of Iasi. But, though 30% of the city’s population was Jewish by 1930, according to Yad Vashem, anti-Semitism spread during that decade, and the country ended up on the Axis side once World War II began. Then, on June 29, 1941, her father said he was going out to buy cigarettes and never returned.

In fact, by then, it was already the second day of the pogrom during which police, soldiers and civilians killed or arrested thousands of Jewish citizens of Iasi. On the heels of bombing of the city by Soviet forces — after which, according to Radu Ioanid’s history of the pogrom, Jews were accused of Soviet collaboration and systematically hunted down by their neighbors — thousands of people were murdered in the streets. Following that massacre, about 4,000 more Jews from Iasi, by Yad Vashem’s count, were put on “death trains.” Packed tightly and sealed, without enough water or even air for those on board, they ran back and forth between stations until more than 2,500 had died.

Flescher knows that her uncle and cousin ended up on the trains; that her father never came home means, she believes, that he did, too.

With the family’s apartment destroyed and the breadwinner gone, Flescher and her brother and mother went to live with a relative, in the area of the city to which the surviving Jews — almost all women and children — were constrained. They wore the required yellow stars on their clothes and obeyed a strict curfew. They stayed for years as the city was bombed to ruins, surviving almost exclusively on mamaliga, a cornmeal porridge.

“I remember every minute of my fear and my suffering,” Flescher, who now lives in Queens, N.Y., tells TIME. “I suffered every single day — I’m not even talking about being hungry and thirsty. We were persecuted.”

What happened in Iasi has been described as “the best-known event in the history of the Romanian Holocaust,” but what exactly Flescher went through is still being debated. Specifically, was her experience in Iasi after the pogrom — in which her and her family’s movements were curtailed by regulations and threats, but not by walls — mean that she lived in a ghetto? Though it may seem like mere semantics in light of the specifics of the suffering, the answer could even today have an immediate effect on Flescher’s daily life, and that of roughly a thousand other people, too.

That’s because, under the complicated structure of compensation and restitution that has been established for Holocaust survivors over the intervening decades, those who were in a concentration camp or ghetto can receive a monthly pension from the German government, whereas many other survivors (those who fled before the Nazi advance, for example) were eligible for a one-time payment. The Jews of Iasi did receive such a payment, back in the 1950s, but their representatives believe that they are in fact owed the pension instead.

This question of the status of Iasi is one of the matters that those representatives hope might be resolved in the first week of July, in the next regularly scheduled round of annual negotiations between the German government and the organization known as the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, or the Claims Conference, which represents a range of Jewish interests around the world. A delegation from the Conference, led by a survivor named Roman Kent and Ambassador Stuart Eizenstat, a long-time advisor to the U.S. on Holocaust issues, will meet in Berlin with representatives from Germany’s Finance Ministry, under a system that has been in place since the early 1950s, when West Germany, Israel and the Claims Conference agreed that Germany would “make moral and material amends” for the Holocaust, as Chancellor Konrad Adenauer put it. What he meant and to whom it applies has evolved over the years, as understanding of the Holocaust has changed and as survivors have aged, but there’s little question that the system reflects the new understanding of personal and national responsibility that arose in the post-Holocaust world.

“I can say that what [Germany] has done is historic. There’s never been in the history of world a defeated power that has paid not reparations like in World War I to governments, but to individual civilians who were harmed,” Eizenstat told TIME. “I’m negotiating with people who — and this has been really inspiring — are second and third generation, and yet they continue to feel a moral obligation to help survivors until the last one is gone.”

The reaction to the idea of such reparations when they were first organized, in the 1950s, was mixed, as explored by Menachem Z. Rosensaft and Joana D. Rosensaft in their history of the development of the reparations structure. Some believed that the world’s Jews should maintain a policy of “absolute non-fraternization” with Germany, and others shuddered at the suggestion that any dollar amount might be suggested as compensation for the Holocaust. Over the years, however, the two sides have gradually come to see each other as having to “work together to come to resolution,” says Greg Schneider, executive vice president of the Claims Conference, who will also be attending the negotiations. (Even today, however, Schneider is careful to make the same point his predecessors made six decades ago: though the relationship between the Conference and Germany has produced many successes, no compensation will ever be satisfactory.)

So far, according to figures provided to TIME by the German Federal Ministry of Finance, Germany has given a total of more than 74.5 billion euros — or about $85 billion at today’s exchange rate — to Holocaust survivors, who fall under a variety of statutory umbrellas. Under current agreements, about 55,000 Jewish people due monthly payments receive 336 euros, or about $381, a month. The Iasi question is part of a larger outstanding issue the Conference is focusing on, in trying to expand the number of people who can gain access to such pensions.

Despite the cooperation that now characterizes the annual negotiations between the Claims Conference and Germany, any distribution of funds on such a large scale involves complicated legal, definitional, financial and moral questions. That’s part of the reason why, according to Schneider, negotiation sessions can run for up to 12 hours straight at a time, covering everything from frank discussions of feasibility to the recounting of survivors’ stories.

“We’re deeply disappointed that this [Iasi] issue hasn’t been resolved and we’re strongly pressing for the resolution, hopefully in the next few weeks, because we think it’s a miscarriage of justice,” said Greg Schneider, executive vice president of the Claims Conference, who will also be attending the negotiations. “But it’s only possible to do so because of the leadership that Germany has taken on this issue.”

Compensating those persecuted by the Nazis is of the highest priority for the German federal government, a spokesperson for the German Federal Ministry of Finance told TIME in statement in German.

As Eizenstat points out, keeping that priority in mind only gets more urgent as the decades pass, as survivors age and the resolution of these material claims against Germany enters what he calls its “last phase.” He says there are 500,000 surviving Holocaust victims. They are elderly people by definition and many of them struggle to make ends meet, such that a few hundred dollars a month would make a big difference to them.

That is certainly true for Frances Flescher, who is still reeling from her losses in the the Iasi pogrom. While she says “it could help a lot financially” to receive a pension for what she went through, the satisfaction of recognition ranks first in her thoughts about the matter.

“I don’t understand why they kept quiet all this time. The Romanian people, we went through hell, and they didn’t recognize it,” Flesher said. “Do I know why? I only suffer. We were wondering what happened — they forgot about the Romanian people? We were persecuted and wore yellow stars and the hunger that we went through and everything. I don’t know every place, but I know in Iasi what we went through.”

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Write to Lily Rothman at lily.rothman@time.com