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Milberg Weiss Lawyer Focuses On Cases for Holocaust Survivors

Milberg Weiss Lawyer Focuses
On Cases for Holocaust Survivors
By Frances A. McMorris

05/19/1999
The Wall Street Journal
Page B7
(Copyright (c) 1999, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.)

Deborah Sturman grew up hearing gruesome accounts of how the Nazis slaughtered her grandparents’ 12 brothers and sisters, many of whom perished in concentration camps.

As a teenager, she moved to Europe to study music and later pursued a career as a concert French horn player in Germany. But her passion for Holocaust survivors led her to become politically active on their behalf and to eventually attend law school, in part, so she could pursue legal actions on their behalf.

Today, Ms. Sturman, 40 years old, works exclusively on Holocaust litigation at Milberg Weiss Bershad Hynes & Lerach, a prominent New York law firm that is better known for bringing shareholder class actions against companies whose stock prices have dropped. And while lots of high-profile lawyers have been grabbing headlines with Holocaust lawsuits lately, Ms. Sturman has had a big impact behind the scenes.

Two years ago, when she joined Milberg Weiss as a relatively green lawyer, the firm was involved only in the big Swiss banks case that settled last summer for $1.25 billion. Ms. Sturman set out to persuade name partner Melvyn Weiss to file a slave-labor case on behalf of people who were forced by the Nazis to work for a variety of companies.

“There wasn’t a day that she didn’t come into my office and hawk me,” says Mr. Weiss, who at first thought slave-labor claims were too old to succeed. Ms. Sturman insisted that a case could be made.

To test her theory, Mr. Weiss invited Harvard legal scholar Arthur Miller to come in and grill her about it. The two-hour meeting, she says, “was pretty intimidating,” since she was only two years out of law school at the time.

But she held her ground and explained that the claims are allowed because the 1989 reunification of Germany and two subsequent German legal opinions lifted the moratorium on bringing slave-labor claims that was imposed by the 1953 London Debt Agreement. Mr. Miller recalls being persuaded, partly by her argument and partly by her intensity. “You could see enormous determination and a fire in her eyes,” he says.

Burt Neuborne, a New York University Law School professor who is acting as an adviser in the bank case and who also vetted her theory, says none of the more experienced lawyers realized they could bring a slave-labor claim until she explained why.

Her work contributed to the filing of the first slave-labor class action, in which a Belgian woman sued the German arm of Ford Motor Co., in federal court in Newark, N.J., last year. Milberg Weiss is now involved in 20 of the roughly 40 slave-labor cases pending in U.S. courts. The lawsuits have prompted some 15 German companies to begin discussions about a compensation fund for slave laborers.

“There comes a time when you have to do something about it,” Ms. Sturman says. “These people suffered so enormously. There’s got to be some sort of recognition of that before they die.”

These days, Ms. Sturman travels to Germany nearly every month to work on the cases. While Mr. Miller says she is still learning about American class actions, her historical perspective and fluency in several languages, including German, is invaluable to the lawyers’ efforts.

She learned German, as well as Dutch, French and Italian, after moving to Belgium to study music and make it her career. In Germany, she played for the West German Broadcast Orchestra, married a tax attorney (from whom she has since been divorced), had a child and got involved in Jewish causes. She also began selling real estate on behalf of American and Israeli Jews who didn’t want to come to Germany for the transactions.

But she found being a Jew in Germany difficult. Once, when she insisted a grocer give her a receipt for six pounds of coffee she was buying for the orchestra, he refused, saying: “I haven’t seen such pettiness since the Jews left.”
Such incidents soured her on Germany. So she returned to the U.S. to pursue a law degree at the University of California at Los Angeles.

After a brief clerkship with the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, she worked with Bet Tzedek Legal Services, a clinic that provides free legal representation for the indigent, trying to speed up the claims of about 800 mostly Russian Holocaust survivors that were pending before the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany in New York. David Lash, the group’s executive director, recalls being impressed by her knowledge of what happened in each concentration camp and ghetto.

She also helped California state lawmakers draft legislation extending the deadline to the year 2010 for Holocaust survivors and their families to file lawsuits in state court against insurance companies that failed to honor policies of people whose family members died. And she worked on a bill that would explicitly allow slave-labor claims in state court.

Recently, an elderly Holocaust survivor came to see Ms. Sturman at her midtown Manhattan office, which is decorated with an antique French horn and a poster that says “Poland, First to Fight.” A Polish emigre, he explained that he fled the Nazis with his mother through the sewers of Warsaw. She ended up in a prison camp and he in a Catholic orphanage. They were reunited after the war.

He gets a small pension from the German government but hopes Ms. Sturman can get him an increase because he recently developed cancer. She assured him that she knows how to handle the red tape, adding, “I’m very aggressive.”

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