By Sandy Eller
Having both grown up in the dark shadow of the Holocaust, it comes as no surprise that Michael and Barbara Lissner are both passionate about helping those who survived the terrible atrocities of World War II. But the extent to which the Cresskill, N.J., couple has devoted themselves to advocating for survivors is truly remarkable, with as many as 3,000 individuals benefitting from their advice and assistance.
Michael and Barbara are both partners at Lissner & Lissner LLP, a Manhattan legal firm that deals in elder care and estate law, with a special focus on legal matters pertaining to victims of Nazi persecution. The firm was founded 70 years ago by Michael’s father and initially served prewar European refugees, with Holocaust survivors joining its client base in the years that followed. The practice continued to grow as word of its expertise spread throughout the survivor community, and as the years went by, it expanded its offerings to assist aging Holocaust victims who found themselves in declining health and were struggling financially.
It was a shared love of the legal world that brought the Lissners together. After meeting Barbara when he sat next to her at a law review class, Michael told his mother later that day, “I just met the girl I am going to marry.” Those providential words became reality in 1984, during which time Michael was working in the family law practice and after his mother Liese’s passing in 1984 and his father Jerry’s death three years later, Barbara joined the firm as well. The couple initially dealt in real estate, estate planning and tax matters, eventually focusing their practice on elder law, giving them the ability to help Holocaust survivors and their families plan for the challenges of aging. The passage of the federal Victims of Nazi Persecution Act of 1994 firmly cemented their position in the Holocaust arena, because while the law excluded restitution payments from being classified as income in determining eligibility for financial needs-based federal benefits, it raised more questions than answers.
“No one really understood what it meant or how to apply it,” Michael told The Jewish Press.
There was no doubt that Michael and Barbara’s drive to help Holocaust survivors was deeply embedded in their DNA. Barbara’s father, Sol Urbach, lost his entire family during the war, and he attributed his survival to his work assignment placing him in Oskar Schindler’s factory. Her mother, Ada Birnbaum, made it through the Holocaust along with her parents and two siblings, the family spending the war years in the harsh Siberian work camps. Michael’s family fared better, but their lives also bore Nazi fingerprints, with his father evacuated from Germany on a Kindertransport and his mother’s family escaping Germany on one of the last ships to leave the country.
It was clear to the Lissners that few attorneys were as driven as they were when it came to helping Holocaust survivors, many of whom needed whatever financial assistance they could receive. Realizing the extent to which the Victims of Nazi Persecution Act could be implemented to help survivors and their families, Michael and Barbara dedicated themselves to helping survivors apply for restitution and other benefits, as well as seeking protection for the monies they were awarded.
“We saw oftentimes how survivors ended up in nursing homes without having extra money to buy a robe or slippers or to get a health aide,” said Barbara. “There were a lot of people who were alone in nursing homes, with no relatives to visit them or look out for them, and we were looking for ways to help them.”
Seeing what was happening to Holocaust survivors as they aged, the Lissners delved deeper into this little-known federal statute in order to understand how it could be implemented to benefit survivors, many of whom were already their clients. They developed an asset protection plan called Victim of Nazi Persecution Restitution Trusts in 1999, giving eligible clients the ability to keep a significant portion of their assets should they require long term care. They were invited to speak at the Library of Congress shortly thereafter, presenting their research and findings which had the federal government agreeing that the exemption covered not only current restitution payments for survivors and their heirs, but even those dating back as far as 1952, when compensations began for Holocaust survivors.
One of the Lissners’ most memorable stories involved a woman whose funds were sheltered through a restitution trust, and when she eventually went on Medicaid she was able to use those funds for private duty care while she was living in a nursing home. Her son was living on Supplemental Security Income, and when he inherited the remainder of the funds after her passing, he was disqualified from collecting his social security benefits.
“His entire net worth was $35,000 and without the SSI he would have been unable to stay in his apartment,” recalled Michael. “To make a long story short, our application was denied but we appealed the decision and won, and the Social Security Administration issued new regulations to codify our interpretation of the Nazi Victims Eligibility Statute.”
Thanks to the Lissners’ efforts, that precedent-setting 2014 case broke new ground for Holocaust survivors and their children, who could now feel confident that the Social Security Administration would treat inherited restitution money as exempted assets for the purposes of applying for public benefits. Both Michael and Barbara continue to share their expertise with attorneys and agencies, with lawyers calling them from all over the United States to help clients in similar situations.
“You might have a Holocaust survivor in Kentucky or Missouri where the Medicaid supervisor isn’t familiar with these issues,” said Michael. “You get a call and you walk them through it. It’s a real privilege to be in the seats that we’re in, being dedicated to these issues and being able to make the kind of difference that helps families and individuals.”
The Lissners’ involvement with Holocaust survivors extends far beyond their law practice. Michael was the chairman of the board of The Blue Card, a national organization which provides financial assistance for needy Holocaust survivors, for approximately 20 years.
“The Blue Card made it possible for people to stay in their homes, pay their rent, have electricity and see a dentist – the sort of things that many people can easily afford but were unaffordable for survivors,” explained Barbara.
Michael and Barbara are extremely involved in the JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly where they established a Holocaust education endowment and memorial and, with their close relationships with so many survivors, they were instrumental in helping the Museum of Jewish Heritage acquire Holocaust artifacts in its early days. The couple has spoken at organizations and schools about the Holocaust as well as their families’ war-time experiences and are also currently involved in Emergency USA, which sets up mobile hospitals in war torn areas including Ukraine. Prior to the pandemic, Michael spent ten years giving adult education classes for the Jewish Association of Services for the Aged on history, current events, law, estate planning and restitution trust for survivors.
The Lissners have two children and two grandchildren and they are proud to see the next generation continuing their tradition of helping those in need and giving their time to both Jewish and general charitable causes. Michael noted that many of their current clients are the children and even the grandchildren of some of their former clients and, not surprisingly, many have become close friends.
Having spent year advocating for Holocaust survivors, Michael and Barbara still find themselves waging battles that are all too familiar.
“We still have to fight with nursing homes all the time,” observed Barbara. “I can’t tell you how aggravating it is to hear that nursing homes are taking clients’ monthly restitution checks. We put an end to it once we know about it.”
Michael feels strongly that the impact of the Holocaust will outlive even the last of the survivors.
“It will take multiple generations for the enormity of what transpired to be understood,” said Michael. “We need to continue to remember and memorialize the victims and keep our people strong so that the past will never be repeated.”
Originally printed in The Jewish Press – Friday, August 26, 2022