Many aging Shoah survivors are living a new nightmare

By Marc Ballon, Senior Writer

Bella Zucker in her home in Hemet. Photo by Marc Ballon
Sammy Moscovitz sits alone in his drab one-room Los Angeles apartment watching cable TV and wondering how he ended up like this.

Like the frayed sweatshirt he wears, the 75-year-old Holocaust survivor looks tired and a bit rundown. He owns a bed, a dresser, a television, some clothing and little else. Racked with pain and plagued by various ailments, he points to five bottles of pills and complains that he sometimes rations them because of the high cost.

The Romanian-born Moscovitz has no children, and his wife died years ago. He has a caregiver, Candace Harbin, who is paid by the state to cook, clean and make meals for him 23 hours a week. That helps. Yet when she takes him out for coffee or a meal, Harbin says, Moscovitz sometimes wants to return home after just five minutes because of his pain.

Without medical insurance, Moscovitz lost his house 15 years ago, after a stroke and heart problems sent him to the hospital for an extended stay, which he paid for with his savings. On a recent day, he had $300 to his name, with outstanding debts of $180 and counting.

The phone rings. He debates whether to answer it. Chances are, Moscovitz says, it’s a bill collector. It’s always a bill collector these days. Against his better judgment, he picks up the receiver. A kind voice greets him and asks how he’s doing.

“Fine,” Moscovitz says, before quickly ending the call. “That was some Jewish group,” he says matter-of-factly in his rasp of a voice. “They want to see if I’m dead.”

Moscovitz is one of the tens of thousands of Holocaust survivors living in abject poverty in the United States. These witnesses to the 20th century’s worst atrocity are enduring a second nightmare, often struggling just to feed and clothe themselves.

Their wartime experiences, which included malnutrition and physical and psychological abuse, have made them prone to costly medical and mental problems as they age. Having depleted their savings or worked at low-paying jobs without pensions, they now largely subsist on government Social Security and disability checks, along with some assistance from Jewish organizations, and, if they are lucky, financial compensation from Germany and the other European countries that sent them to concentration camps, conscripted them into forced labor battalions and decimated their families.

An estimated 25 percent of the 122,000 Holocaust survivors in the United States live below the poverty line, according to a report issued in December 2003 by the United Jewish Communities (UJC), the umbrella organization for the nation’s federations. Because the UJC based its findings on data from 2000-2001, many observers believe that the number of survivors has fallen to about 100,000. But with the typical victim approaching 80 and often spending much of his income on high-priced drugs and medical care, the poverty rate may now approach 33 percent.

In Los Angeles, which is home to some of the world’s wealthiest Jews, two Holocaust museums and affluent and heavily Jewish neighborhoods such as Brentwood and Bel Air, an estimated 3,000 of city’s 10,000 to 12,000 Holocaust victims live at or below the poverty line, according to Andrew Cushnir, vice president for planning for The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

Largely invisible to many in the community, impoverished survivors often exist at subsistence levels as shut-ins in aging apartments or in dilapidated homes they can no longer afford to repair. In many ways, they have become the forgotten people.

Which is not to say that some Jews haven’t stepped up to help after learning about their difficult circumstances. For example, after the publication of an article about Bet Tzedek’s work on behalf of Hungarian survivors, an anonymous donor gave the Jewish nonprofit legal aid society a much-needed gift of $100,000.

“That was a nice surprise,” Bet Tzedek Executive Director Mitchell Kamin said. But there have been too few nice surprises, experts say.

Area Jewish philanthropists “seem to have a strong desire to give money in remembrance of the Holocaust to a Holocaust museum, but are not as generous in helping the survivors themselves,” said Todd Morgan, former chairman of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and creator of the Morgan Aging With Dignity Fund, which pays for food, medicine and transportation for poor victims, among other needs.

Morgan, a money manager, said he started his $2 million fund five years ago after an indigent victim asked him for $400 for heart medication. Morgan approached several big donors, educated them about the struggles faced by many survivors and asked for contributions. He raised $200,000, much less than he expected. Morgan said he has never again tapped the Jewish community for survivor money.

To be sure, many Holocaust victims have flourished in America and have led productive, full lives. They have become doctors, lawyers, congressman and corporate titans. Still, many have suffered greatly, especially those who immigrated to the United States after 1965, according to the UJC report on Holocaust victims in America.

Survivors who came to the United States more recently, many of them from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, appear to have had a harder time acclimating, in part because of language problems. Whatever the reasons, on the whole, this population has more financial problems, as well as physical and mental health disabilities than survivors who came to America earlier, the study says.

Regardless of when they immigrated, many survivors grapple with indelible scars.

Based on more than 50 years of experience ministering to more than 100 Holocaust victims and their families, social worker Florabel Kinsler, formerly of Jewish Family Service (JFS) Los Angeles, estimates that about half of all victims are still experiencing, or have suffered from, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The mental and physical hell they endured during the war, she said, produced an abundance of corticosteroids in their bodies, which weakened their immune systems and has made them susceptible to lupus, rheumatoid arthritis and Crohn’s Disease, a stomach disorder. Many of those survivors’ children have also inherited a form of PTSD and might suffer from similar afflictions, Kinsler added.

Survivors with PTSD often have nightmares, become easily disturbed by loud noises, have difficulty keeping their emotions in check and tend to be controlling, a quality that often causes heightened friction between them and their offspring.

“Survivors often lack the physical and emotional glue to keep going,” Kinsler said.

To help address their growing needs, several local Jewish agencies have, for years, offered survivors an array of services. Now, executives from The Federation, Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles and Bet Tzedek, which helps victims file compensation claims, are in discussions on how to do more.

“We have an obligation and a responsibility to help,” Los Angeles Federation President John Fishel said.

Yet, despite communal agencies’ best efforts, they lack the resources to provide all of the needed services all of the time, said Lisa Brooks, director of communications and donor relations at JFS.

“We can take care of the basics, but sometimes people’s needs go beyond that,” Brooks said.

Whether because of pride, ignorance or extreme physical and metal isolation, some desperate survivors fail to avail themselves of existing services and receive no help.

In the 12 month period, which ended June 30, Jewish Family Service spent $2.1 million on programs for about 700 local survivors, or an average of $3,000 a person, a 17 percent total increase in spending over 2005, said Susie Forer-Dehrey, the agency’s associate executive director. Among other services, JFS offers taxi vouchers for doctors’ visits, in-house cleaning and cooking, counseling, adult day care, free groceries, emergency medical grants and referrals to nursing homes with staffs trained to care for survivors.

When JFS gets involved, the agency can really make a difference. Take the case of the late George Kukawka, a survivor who died earlier this year at 86 from congestive heart failure.

Kukawka’s nephew, Ron Wolfson, a professor of education at the University of Judaism, said that a JFS social worker attended to his uncle’s needs for more than a decade. She arranged for Kukawka to have hot meals delivered to his house, helped him find a high-quality subsidized apartment in the San Fernando Valley and, when Kukawka’s health deteriorated, helped secure him a spot at the Jewish Home for the Aging.

“The community really rallied to care for Uncle George and did it with the Jewish value of honoring the elderly with dignity,” Wolfson said. Born in Poland, Kukawka was forced by the Germans to load trucks in the Warsaw Ghetto. On one occasion, he received a brutal beating that nearly killed him and left him deaf in his right ear. Escaping in 1942, he hid in a Polish forest until the war’s end.

Coming to the United States in 1951, Kukawka moved to Los Angeles a year later and found factory work as a welder. Despite the fresh start, nightmares plagued him, as did his health, which began its slow downward spiral when he developed asthma and emphysema in his 40s. Kukawka never married.

With no savings or pension, Kukawka relied heavily on his monthly government check of $1,079, most of which came from Social Security. If not for the assistance given to him by JFS, Wolfson said, Kukawka’s “life would have been significantly more difficult.”

Like JFS, Bet Tzedek has programs specially tailored to assist Holocaust victims. One of the nation’s only Jewish-run legal aid service agencies, Bet Tzedek has helped 3,000 mostly local survivors apply for restitution and reparations and “fight for their rights as vociferously as possible,” said Mark Rothman, the nonprofit’s Holocaust services advocate.

Rothman’s program is funded, in part, by an annual $50,000 grant from The L.A. Federation. He said his job is to help victims navigate their way through the often-confusing process of applying for compensation from the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany or the Claims Conference, as well as from foreign governments and international programs that offer restitution.

Rothman currently has four part-time law clerks and one part-time staffer working with him to help clients determine which funds they qualify for; to fill out applications that sometimes must be translated from German, and to draft appeals in the event of rejections.

Without Rothman’s assistance, many victims would likely never apply for compensation due the complexity and restrictions of several of the funds. The Article 2 Fund, for one, which was created in 1992 after lengthy negotiations between the Claims Conference and the newly reunified Germany, represents an attempt to compensate survivors who had previously received little or no indemnification.

However, the fund has several restrictions imposed by the German government. To qualify, a victim must have been incarcerated for at least six months in a concentration camp, lived illegally under false identity for at least 18 months, hid from the Nazis under inhumane conditions for at least 18 months or been imprisoned for at least 18 months in a Jewish ghetto, as defined by the German government.

A survivor who spent only five months in a concentration camp or 17 months in a ghetto does not qualify. There are also income restrictions. Applicants with annual incomes in excess of $16,000 for a single person and $21,000 per married couple, excluding Social Security, are ineligible.

Over the past 55 years, more than 500,000 Holocaust survivors in 75 countries have received financial compensation as a result of the work of the Claims Conference, said Hillary Kessler-Godin, director of communications for the Claims Conference. Victims who spent time in concentration camps, worked as slave laborers, were subject to medical experiments or who had their properties seized by Nazis and their allies have received some form of compensation and restitution. The Claims Conference has also allocated about $1 billion to organizations, including L.A.’s JFS, for social services and Shoah education. And for many indigent victims, Article 2’s $320 monthly payments or the one-time $3,000 Hardship Fund allocation can make a big difference.

Yet not everyone applying for compensation receives it. The Claims Conference rejects nearly one in five Article 2 applicants. Sometimes survivors meet the requirements, but still are denied because of application errors or an inability to produce birth certificates and other decades-old documents, Bet Tzedek’s Rothman said.

The Claims Conference inspires strong reactions among survivors, who often laud it or lambaste it, said Michael Bazyler, a law professor at Whittier Law School in Orange County and author of “Holocaust Justice: The Battle for Restitution in America’s Courts” and co-editor of “Holocaust Restitution: Perspectives on the Litigation and Its Legacy.” Bazyler believes that the conference, like other large organizations, “may not be as responsive as it should be to the needs” of those it’s designed to serve.

Claims Conference board member Sam Bloch defends the process.

“We’re trying to get as much money as possible from all different sources to provide as much as we can for hundreds of thousands of needy survivors,” said Bloch, who also serves as senior vice president of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, a New York-based national organization. “It’s a complicated operation, but I think we’re meeting our historical obligations and doing an extraordinarily good job.”

Bella Zucker tells a different story.

In September, the wheelchair-bound, 77-year-old survivor of a Romanian labor camp learned that the Claims Conference had turned down her petition for Article 2 compensation. The reason: Information in her application differed from what was said to have been contained in an application her mother had submitted more than 50 years earlier for a special German pension for Holocaust survivors. The Claims Conference, Zucker said, declined to identify the discrepancies. Bet Tzedek plans to file an appeal.

“I feel like I’m victimized again,” said Zucker, who survives on $832 a month in Social Security and disability payments. Just Zucker’s monthly rent for her 800-square-foot house is $700.

Zucker lives in the dusty town of Hemet in Riverside County, with two of her four children. Her life has had its share of challenges.

At the beginning of World War II, she said, German soldiers executed her two teenage brothers in the streets during a pogrom. Later, Germans deported her father to Predeal, Romania, to work in the rock mines. After the war, he was a broken man.

In 1939, soldiers took 9-year-old Zucker and her mother, Chana, to a synagogue in the center of their hometown of Jassy, where they and other female prisoners slept on cold floors and survived on scraps of food thrown to them by Nazis.

The Zuckers scrubbed floors, washed windows, peeled potatoes and cleaned and dried clothes for German soldiers. At night, the young girl had to protect her meager food rations, lest another hungry child steal them. Zucker said she can still hear the tear-stained voices of three Hungarian girls repeatedly asking their mother why they had no bread, margarine and potatoes.

In 1940, Germans loaded Zucker, her mother and other Jews onto a train with blackened windows. Zucker said it was so dark she couldn’t even see her mother beside her. Nobody expected to survive.

A few hours later, Zucker and her mother arrived at a Romanian labor camp, where they spent the next five years scrubbing, scouring and suffering. At war’s end, the 15-year-old Zucker looked like a skeleton.

After the war, Zucker made her way to Israel, where her parents later joined her. An Orthodox Jew and ardent Zionist, she served as a helicopter nurse in the 1948 Israeli War of Independence and suffered four leg wounds. She remained in the Israeli reserves until she immigrated to America, nearly two decades later.

In Israel, she married Chaim Zucker, also a Holocaust survivor, and had four children. Chaim Zucker supported his family as a manual laborer. After the Six-Day War, the Zuckers, tired of Israel’s violence and stress, moved to Detroit, where Chaim Zucker’s two surviving sisters lived.

He worked for 10 years as a carpenter at a local Jewish Community Center, earning $6.25 an hour with no pension benefits. As with many Holocaust survivors who immigrated to the United States later in life, Chaim Zucker’s limited language skills and lack of a college degree made it difficult for him to get higher-paying jobs. Money was always tight, but somehow the family got by.

The Zuckers moved to the Southern California desert in the mid-1980s and later to Orange County after Chaim Zucker’s death in 1992. Around that time, Bella Zucker had a falling out with two of her sons, with whom she now maintains only sporadic contact. After a lifetime of hardship and heartache, Zucker’s health began to decline.

In the late 1990s, Sara Zucker, her daughter, quit her job as an office manager to care for her sick mother. With their finances in tatters, Sara and Bella Zucker moved to Hemet, one of the few places in the area they could afford. Charles Zucker, Bella Zucker’s 47-year-old son, who has just graduated from junior college, also moved in to help care for his mother.

Two years ago, Sara Zucker became her mother’s full-time caretaker. Riverside County pays her $300 a week for her services, enough to help defray rent and other expenses. At age 42, Sara Zucker, too, has become a virtual shut-in, spending her days cooking, cleaning, bathing and dressing her mother. Because she can’t leave her mother alone for more than one hour at a time, Sara Zucker said, she “can’t go on dates, go out with girlfriends for lunch or get my hair done.”

Adding to their woes, a doctor recently diagnosed Sara Zucker with failing kidneys. Her condition has stabilized through medication, but she worries that she might need dialysis and no longer be able to care for her arthritic, partially deaf mother.

Sara Zucker’s physician suggested that she consider leaving Hemet and relocating to a bigger city, such as Palm Springs, where she could receive better medical care in hospitals with newer technology. Given the desert’s relatively large Jewish population, living there would also allow the Zuckers to reconnect with the community and join a synagogue, Sara Zucker said.

With no money to pay for such a move, Sara Zucker called the Jewish Federation of Palm Springs & Desert Area and Jewish Family Service of Palm Springs for help. Both agencies turned down her request.

“Even for residents of Palm Spring, we don’t have any sort of relocation programs,” Palm Springs Federation Executive Director Alan Klugman said. “I wish we were able to have that type of program, but unfortunately we don’t.”

Sara Zucker recently called Jewish Family Services of the Inland Communities and helped her mother secure a one-time grant of $250. Despite this help, Sara Zucker said, “we might be stuck here with no way out.”

Bella Zucker, a solider of Zion, devout Jew and survivor, said she feels totally abandoned by the community.

“They don’t help me,” she said, her hand resting on the belt that prevents her from falling out of her wheelchair. “I need help.”

As bad as her situation is, Bella Zucker said she thanks God for her two devoted offspring. “I don’t know what would happen if they couldn’t take care of me.”

Life is even more dire for Moscovitz, the shut-in survivor who’s mired in debt and health problems.

With the exception of a couple of friends, whom he rarely sees, and his caretaker, he has nobody and next to nothing. He recently hawked a battered wood dresser for $25. Moscovitz said he had counted on receiving some money from the Claims Conference, but that the organization denied his request for reasons still unclear to him.

Born in Jassy, Romania, the same town as Bella Zucker, he and his brother, Ado, fled their small apartment just before the Nazis arrived. Moscovitz’s parents weren’t so fortunate. His father died on a train en route to a camp. His mother survived the war but died little more than a decade later in 1956.

Moscovitz and his brother — who died long ago — spent much of the war huddled in an underground bunker with five other children in the Romanian countryside. They subsisted largely on produce stolen from local farmers. On several occasions, Moscovitz could see the boots of nearby German soldiers from his hiding place. After the war, Moscovitz made his way to Israel. He fought in the War of Independence and later suffered a stomach wound during the Suez Crisis of 1956. During his years in Israel, he worked as a glassmaker, his father’s profession in Romania. When Moscovitz came to the United States in 1967 to visit a friend, he liked Southern California so much he decided to stay.

In the beginning, Moscovitz eked out a living working for a manufacturer of glassworks, before striking out on his own. Making one-of-a-kind glass artworks, including ornate tables and mirrors, he earned $50,000 to $60,000 annually — a good living. One year, Moscovitz said, he took home $200,000. There were European vacations, houses and nice cars.

He lost it all about 15 years ago, when his health failed, around the same time his wife died. With medical bills mounting and no health insurance, Moscovitz burned through his savings. A malpractice judgment for a botched surgery helped stave off ruin for awhile, but the $30,000 he received, after lawyer’s fees, exhausted itself.

Today, he lives on the edge of an emotional, physical and financial abyss.

“I don’t matter to nobody. I don’t bring nothing to nobody,” Moscovitz said. “I don’t care if I die. If I die, I will dance on my grave with pleasure.”