Highland Park divorce attorney Neal Pomper couldn’t believe his eyes when he saw the chilling words that once greeted Jews entering Auschwitz and other concentration camps scrawled across a document faxed to him by the ex-husband of one of his clients.
When he saw those words — “Arbeit Macht Frei” — on the signed legal document in July, Pomper knew he couldn’t just let it go.
The disturbingly ironic phrase, meaning “Work Will Set You Free,” is most familiar as the inscription worked into the iron gates at the entrance to the Auschwitz death camp.
Pomper, whose wife lost family members in Dachau, decided to pursue a legal remedy that resulted in a March 15 ruling of bias harassment in Highland Park Municipal Court against Gary Murphy of Canal Winchester, Ohio. Judge Edward Herman fined Murphy $500 plus court costs and sentenced him to a year’s probation. He also received a 30-day jail sentence to be suspended pending the successful completion of a Holocaust education course. Certification must be provided by the instructor that Murphy participated in such a course and understood its meaning.
Murphy’s New Brunswick attorney, Joshua Altman, declined to comment on the case when contacted by NJJN.
Pomper said he represented Murphy’s ex-wife, Louise Murphy of North Brunswick, for the past three or four years during a contentious divorce, during which time the couple was in court about a half-dozen times.
Murphy previously sent a letter to his ex-wife in which he referred to Pomper as “SJ Assquires.” The lawyer later learned from the Internet that this is racist code for “stupid Jew lawyer.”
At the time, said Pomper, “I wasn’t threatened. The letter was made out to her, so I didn’t do anything.”
The letterhead on the faxed document that Pomper received in July had been changed from an earlier document; the letterhead on the earlier communication included the phone number and name of the company that Murphy had headed as CEO.
However, Murphy had claimed that the reason he could no longer pay his ex-wife alimony and child support was because he had lost the company — ironically, a firm involved in collecting money from deadbeat fathers in Ohio. When Pomper pointed out the discrepancy, the next fax had the altered letterhead with the offensive slogan.
“The people at my office were just blown away,” said Pomper, who contacted Middlesex County Prosecutor Bruce Kaplan. It was decided that the offense was a bias incident rather than a bias crime, and Pomper was told to file a complaint with the Highland Park Police Department.
Larissa Sufaru of Monmouth Junction, a Romanian native whose mother was imprisoned in a concentration camp from the ages of three to seven, is a paralegal in Pomper’s office. She said Murphy claimed the offensive slogan “was just an inside joke with a friend.”
“Being Jewish myself and having family who both died in and survived the Holocaust, I am proud my boss took such a tough stand and fought to teach this man a lesson,” Sufaru said.
Pomper, a member of Congregation Ohr Torah in Edison, said he took that tough stand because “the bigots have to be challenged.”
Murphy and his lawyer, said Pomper, “made an offer to apologize to me if I would drop the charges.”
“I refused. I wanted a guilty verdict. It is important to stand up to this guy because if he got away with this he would feel, ‘I can say whatever I want to a Jewish person.’ By taking a stand against anti-Semitism, I feel empowered,” said Pomper.
Etzion Neuer, director of the New Jersey region of the Anti-Defamation League, praised the decision “as a testament to the seriousness of the NJ courts when it comes to matters of anti-Semitism and all forms of bias.”
“By employing the phrase ‘Arbeit Macht Frei,’ it would appear Mr. Murphy sought to antagonize Mr. Pomper as much as he could,” Neuer said. “The phrase is synonymous with the Nazi persecution and murder of millions of Jews and would naturally make anyone who received such a message recoil in horror.”