Advocates see the turnout at L.A. sessions as a sign that elderly
survivors need aid now more than ever.
By Jessica Garrison
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

July 5, 2006

Auschwitz survivor Victor Bilski gets U.S. Social Security and
restitution money from the German government, but it’s not enough to
cover all his needs.

So when Hungary announced that it would accept new applications for a
restitution program for Holocaust victims, he joined hundreds of other
Los Angeles survivors lining up to apply. The surge took advocates by
surprise and overwhelmed the legal service organization Bet Tzedek,
whose officials hastily scheduled extra clinics to help with the onerous
paperwork.

Although billions of dollars in Holocaust restitution have been paid to
survivors – from the German government, by Swiss banks and from other
governments and insurance companies across Europe – many have received
paltry or no awards. Twenty-five percent of the estimated 120,000
Holocaust survivors in the United States have incomes below the federal
poverty line, compared with only 5% of other Jews older than 55,
according to a 2003 study.

Now, no longer working and in ill health, survivors are finding that
they need money more than ever, according to Mark Rothman, Bet Tzedek’s
Holocaust services advocate.

“They are willing to overcome the insult of what they could arguably
view as blood money,” he said.

This program is designed to provide some compensation to people for the
loss of relatives; its focus is not restitution for having been in a
concentration camp oneself.

The sums it offers amount to no fortune: Family members are eligible to
receive $1,800 for each parent and $900 for each sibling who died in
Nazi extermination campaigns with the help of Hungarian collaborators.
But the money comes at a time when other funds are dwindling.

“As the need becomes greater, the availability of funds becomes less,”
said Michael Bazyler, a Whittier Law School professor who has written a
book about Holocaust restitution. He added that the problem is
worldwide, with survivors in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe
facing the worst crisis.

In the United States, Jewish social service agencies have tried to step
into the gap. This year Jewish Family Service is helping 600 Los Angeles
survivors with utility bills, food, medication and home care. Bet Tzedek
officials say their organization has offered 3,000 indigent Holocaust
survivors help in staving off eviction, getting Supplemental Security
Income or negotiating the Medicare system.

Last week, the officials said they expected 50 or so of the about 10,000
Holocaust survivors in Los Angeles to appear for the Hungarian sign-up.
Instead, five times that many sought help.

There isn’t much time: The paperwork, with notarized documentation
attached, must be postmarked and on its way to Budapest by July 31.

At one clinic last week, Bet Tzedek’s North Hollywood office was
bursting with tables of elderly survivors. Many had blue numbers
tattooed on their forearms; some clutched tattered letters or sepia
photographs of long-dead loved ones. Almost all wore identical
expressions of confusion.

Bilski sat at a table in the back trying to figure out how many forms to
complete to make claims for his wife’s dead siblings and parents. Bilski
was born in Poland, but his wife, Rose, who died seven years ago, was
Hungarian.

At another table, 78-year-old Berta Kaczor waited for help.

A cheerful grandmother with carefully coifed hair and a pink shirt, she
chatted happily about her grandchildren and more somberly about World
War II, in which she lost her mother, her father and six siblings.

Kaczor escaped the gas chambers, she said, by getting assigned to make
bombs. After the war, she wound up in a displaced persons camp. She
began describing this experience, but was interrupted by a paralegal in
a bright pink T-shirt.

“Can I have the whiteout?” asked Golnoush Goharzad, as she struggled
with the maddeningly complicated forms. A different form is required for
each dead relative, and the questions go on for pages, in language that
even the lawyers say is confusing.

Kaczor paused as the whiteout was passed across the table.

“I met my husband, and three days later I married him,” she continued.
“I was 16. I’d been to Auschwitz. I wanted to build a home; gradually we
got used to each other.”

In the next chair, Goharzad, who has been helping Aharon Samuel, 82,
apply for restitution for his two brothers, his parents and his first
wife, finally completed the first of the forms. “Sign here and here and
here,” she said.

Across the table, Eric S. Beane turned to Irving Goldberger, 82. “Which
victim do you want to start with?” Beane asked.

From a folder, Goldberger pulled out pages of Hungarian text. He lost
more than half a dozen family members, he said. “If I could get anything
from them,” he added, referring to Hungary, “I would take it.”

Kaczor resumed chatting. After the war, she and her husband moved to
Brooklyn and opened a candy store. They served egg creams. Now she lives
in the San Fernando Valley to be near her two grown sons.

Kaczor was interrupted again by an exasperated Mildred Friedmann, whose
husband was a Hungarian survivor.

“It’s impossible,” she said. “I believe the Hungarians are going to
throw most of these out.” Some of the survivors said they had applied
for restitution from the Hungarian government 10 years ago under a
program that paid less than $200 for each family member – and many said
their claims had been rejected.

Wendy Pittman, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based
Humanitarian Aid Foundation, which gives money to Jewish service
organizations across the country, said more needs to be done to help
aging Holocaust survivors in their final years.

“We have a moral obligation to close this dark chapter of our history
properly,” she said.