Last Shoah restitution office in Canada closes

Staff Reporter

Canadian Holocaust survivors have expressed concern that the closing of the United Restitution Organization office in Toronto last month – the last one in Canada – will have harmful consequences, but Jewish community spokespeople are assuring them that they have nothing to fear.

Founded in the late 1940s as a legal aid society to help survivors claim restitution and compensation from Germany, the URO established a presence in Canada in 1953 under the aegis of the Canadian Jewish Congress.

Offices were opened in Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg and Vancouver to assist the estimated 13,000 survivors who settled in Canada after World War II.

As some of the survivors passed on, URO branches in Winnipeg and Vancouver were closed in the 1970s.

In 2002, the Montreal branch was also closed, leaving the Toronto office as the sole remaining one in the country.

The Toronto office, with its two employees, was officially closed on April 1, but UJA Federation of Greater Toronto has tried to ease the pain by hiring a Toronto URO employee, Dora Elzbet, to continue helping survivors.

“We consider this a crucial service for survivors, who deserve all the assistance that we can provide,” said federation spokesperson Howard English.

“All I can say is that survivors are of great concern to us, and we will do everything in our power to see that they are well taken care of,” said Lorraine Sandler, the chair of UJA’s Holocaust Centre. “I will be very, very watchful and concerned about their well-being.”

She added, “I can’t throw up my hands and shout gevalt, but there is something in place to deal with the situation.”

Survivors were not as sanguine.

“It’s a bad thing,” said Michael Rosenberg, the former president of the Jewish Holocaust Survivors of Canada. “Survivors need an office where they can pour out their hearts and receive assistance. There are a lot of impoverished survivors, and they are not being looked after.”

He praised Elzbet as a dedicated case worker, but he said she will no longer be able to provide sufficient and timely services, since her assistant was let go.

“The workload can’t be handled by one person,” said Rosenberg, an 81-year old survivor who immigrated to Canada from Poland in 1948 and made a career as a printer.

Eli Pfefferkorn, a 78-year-old survivor born in Germany, was blunter.

“Suppose Toronto closed all the emergency rooms in hospitals due to a lack of funds? This is tantamount to the closing of Toronto’s URO office.”

Elzbet, a child of survivors, voiced confidence that she will have no problem delivering services to survivors on the same level as before.

“I basically carried the whole load myself,” said Elzbet, who began working for URO in 1982. “I saw thousands of survivors every year.”

English said the decision to close the Toronto office was taken by URO International, based in Israel.

Efforts to reach URO International in Israel failed, but Nathan Leipciger – a 79-year-old, Toronto-based member of its board and a survivor of the Auschwitz concentration camp – said that the dwindling number of claims filed by local survivors made it economically imperative to close the Toronto office.

Leipciger said that all of URO’s worldwide offices, with the exception of the one in New York City, have been closed, including those in Israel.

He added that survivors in Toronto should not worry, since the federation office staffed by Elzbet will tend to their needs.

Bernie Farber, chief executive officer of Canadian Jewish Congress, echoed Leipciger’s comments.

“As time marches on, the number of claimants become fewer and fewer, and the URO found it economically unviable to keep open an office. We’ll do whatever we can to assist survivors.”

According to English, the URO in Toronto assisted about 2,000 survivors a year and was instrumental in helping them acquire more than $5 million in reparation payments.

The first URO offices sprung up in what was then known as West Germany. In the intervening years, offices were opened in Israel, the United States, Canada, Europe and South America.

During the first few years, operations in Canada were financed by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany and administered by the Canadian Jewish Congress.

Claims Conference spokesperson Hillary Kessler-Godin, in an interview from New York City, said, “In the mid-1950s, we provided a loan to the URO to help it establish a global network of offices to assist survivors in filing claims under the German Federal Indemnification Law, which the Claims Conference negotiated. The URO repaid the entire loan.”