Israeli Holocaust survivors suffering, critics charge

By SHELDON KIRSHNER
Staff Reporter

The plight of destitute Holocaust survivors in Israel has touched off a war of words in Israel and the Diaspora.

Two hundred and fifty thousand survivors, the greatest such concentration in the world, reside in Israel. Close to 80,000, or almost one-third, are reportedly impoverished.

“These survivors can barely afford the medications they need and can barely live on their own without any help,” Jonny Konig, a reader wrote in a bristling letter to the editor of The Canadian Jewish News recently. “What an embarrassment. It’s a shame to think that several European countries have done more than Israel for the care of its Holocaust survivors.”

Dow Marmur, rabbi emeritus at Toronto’s Holy Blossom Temple and a survivor, was just as indignant. In a recent column in the CJN, he observed, “It’s a shame of historic proportions.”

The problem has been acknowledged by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Last month, at a special Knesset ceremony marking the 62nd anniversary of the Allied victory over Nazi Germany, he said: “We are obligated to recognize our wrongs and to admit that there are thousands of survivors living below the poverty line.”

Promising to take remedial measures, Olmert noted that every survivor should be able to live in dignity.

Some critics, such as former World Jewish Congress vice-president Isi Leibler, contend that the Conference of Jewish Material Claims Against Germany – known as the Claims Conference – is to blame for the situation.

Founded in 1951, the Claims Conference, based in New York City, administers and allocates restitution funds to survivors and provides them with social welfare services.

In an interview, Leibler charged that the Claims Conference should have dealt with this situation urgently.

“It failed to do so,” said Leibler, who divides his time between Australia and Israel. “If the Claims Conference had fulfilled its role, no survivor – in Israel or anywhere – would be living in poverty.”

Eli Pfefferkorn, a Toronto survivor, claimed that funds have been misallocated, to the detriment of survivors.

Citing an example, he said the March of the Living – which sends Jewish teens on trips to the sites of death camps in Europe, and then on to Israel – receives huge allocations from the Claims Conference, but that such funds would be better spent if they were channelled to survivors.

Hillary Kessler-Godin, a Claims Conference spokesperson, said the overwhelming majority of needy survivors in Israel hail from the former Soviet Union.

“Like many elderly [Soviet] immigrants, their economic conditions are not good,” she said.

In a stiff rebuttal to detractors, Kessler-Godin added that the Claims Conference has done its best to look after survivors.

“In Israel, we have allocated $400 million [US] since 1995, effectively revolutionizing care to survivors. Another $100 million has been allocated in Israel for 2007 and 2008. Claims Conference allocations have spurred a recognition and support network for the special needs of survivors, which largely did not exist before we assumed this responsibility.”

Twelve years ago, the Claims Conference helped establish the Foundation for the Benefit of Holocaust Victims in Israel, she said. “Claims Conference allocations since then have grown each year.”

These funds provide vital home care services – from housekeeping to bathing assistance – to 11,000 survivors, she pointed out.

“The Claims Conference has also helped build and upgrade nursing homes and geriatric hospital units caring for survivors; establish day cares and rehabilitation facilities; build and renovate housing for Nazi victims; provide medical equipment and assistance, and in many other ways has vastly improved the survivors’ quality of life as they age.”

In addition, in 2006, the Claims Conference paid more than $167 million in direct compensation payments to Israeli survivors and directed funds to the Jewish Agency for Holocaust-related educational and teacher training programs in Israel, Russia and eastern Europe.

“These programs are for youth and educators, varying in duration and intensity and including trips to the sites of Nazi atrocities,” she said.

In the May 28 edition of The Jerusalem Report, Zeev Factor, chair of the Foundation for the Benefit of Holocaust Victims in Israel, offered an explanation for the prevalence of poverty among survivors in Israel.

“There are several reasons,” he said.

“Most survivors who came to Palestine after the war had their education permanently disrupted. Many took low-paying jobs as long as it provided permanent employment… By age 65, the typical Israeli survivor was subsisting on about $1,000 per month… But geriatric illness wiped out savings because many medicines are not covered by national health insurance, and nursing home care in Israel, besides being of poor quality, is also not covered.”

Further, survivors who remained in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe in the aftermath of the war were not permitted to apply for pensions.

“Indeed, large numbers of survivor immigrants, who started coming [to Israel] in 1991, had never received anything and were poor.”

To assist these immigrants, the Claims Conference established a special hardship fund paid for by Germany.

“Some were helped,” wrote Factor, “but not enough.”

The Claims Conference says that more than 500,000 survivors in 75 countries have received compensation payments totalling more than $60 billion since its founding.

Last year alone, allocations of approximately $220 million were made in 42 countries.