For years, without fail, Holocaust survivors in Brooklyn went to their mailboxes and pulled out their monthly, non-taxable reparations checks from the German government.
But last month, they were shocked to see a letter from the German Federal Tax Office providing them with a tax identification number for use in paying taxes on their pensions.
This week, in a quick reversal, German officials are telling survivors who received those letters, “Fuhgedaboutit.”
German government officials here first learned of the letters from State Sen. David Storobin (R-Brooklyn), who contacted them after a constituent brought one to his office July 10. (The Jewish Week first reported the story Thursday on its website.) He contacted the German Consulate in New York and was told it was a mistake.
“They said they did not intend to insult her and recognized the fact that this was an error that should not have been made,” Storobin said.
He said he believed it was an isolated incident until he began mentioning it at constituent meetings.
“People would get up and say ‘my mom or my aunt got a similar letter,’” Storobin said, adding he believes some people probably paid the tax demanded.
A spokeswoman for the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany said her office is “aware that such letters were sent and has brought it to the attention of the German government, which administers those pensions.”
She said at least 40,000 survivors receive the pensions, which were established in 1997 for survivors who were compensated during their internment in Nazi ghettos annexed to the Third Reich. Such payment is now considered as a contribution to German Social Security, making survivors eligible for old age pensions provided they meet certain qualifications. The amount of the pension depends on the length of time a person spent in a ghetto.
Storobin said the woman who came to her with the tax letter was from Russia and was unable to read or speak German. He said that when his office translated the letter, they knew immediately there was a mistake.
“By German law pensions are not taxable either here or there,” Storobin said. “Taxing a person who is getting reparations is unheard of.”
A spokesperson for the German Ministry of Finance said in an e-mail that “in principle” German tax officials contact only those non-resident pensioners “who live in countries where Germany has a right to tax such income. In the majority of cases in the United States, this is not the case.”
Anyone who received a letter from Germany’s Federal Central Tax Office (Bundeszentralamt für Steuern) giving them a tax I.D. number should just ignore the letter, the spokesman said.
Storobin said he is telling anyone who has additional questions to call his office at (718) 743-8610 or call Consul Ellen Goelz, the head of the Legal and Consular Section at the German Consulate in New York, at (212) 610-9735.