By THANE ROSENBAUM

THE Holocaust has always been marked by numbers. There was the numbering
of arms in death camps and the staggering death toll where the words six
million became both a body count and a synonym for an unspeakable crime.
After the Holocaust, Germany performed the necessary long division in
paying token reparations to survivors. More recently, Swiss banks and
European insurance companies have concealed bank account and policy
numbers belonging to dead Jews.

Only with the Holocaust have dehumanization and death been as much a
moral mystery as a tragic game of arithmetic. And the numbers continue,
although now largely in reverse.

After 60 years, Holocaust survivors are inching toward extinction.
According to Ira Sheskin, director of the Jewish Demography Project at
the University of Miami, fewer than 900,000 remain, residing primar ily
in the United States, Israel and the former Soviet Union. Most are in
their 80s and 90s. Unless immediate measures are taken, many of those
who survived the Nazi evil will soon die without a proper measure of
dignity.

According to Dr. Sheskin’s data, more than 87,000 American Holocaust
survivors — roughly half the American total — qualify as poor, meaning
they have annual incomes below $15,000. The United Jewish Communities,
the umbrella organization of the American Jewish Federations, determined
that 25 percent of the American survivors live at or below the official
federal poverty line. (The poverty figure in New York City is even
higher.) Many are without sufficient food, shelter, heat, health care,
medicine, dentures, eyeglasses, even hearing aids.

Conditions worldwide are similar. It’s a sad twist that the teenagers
who mastered the art of survival so long ago have been forced, in their
old age, to call on t heir survival instincts once again.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Although the various global financial
settlements represent only a small fraction of the Jewish property that
was plundered during the Holocaust, they still amount to billions of
dollars. Which raises questions: Why aren’t the funds being used to care
for Holocaust survivors in whose name and for whose benefit these
restitution initiatives were undertaken? Why weren’t survivors permitted
to speak for themselves in the very negotiations that led to the
recovery and distribution of their stolen assets?

Take the Swiss bank settlement, for instance. A federal judge in
Brooklyn distributed 75 percent of the looted assets to survivors in the
former Soviet Union, leaving only 4 percent for destitute survivors in
the United States, even though roughly 20 percent of the world’s
Holocaust survivors live in America. Assets that had been stolen by the
Swiss were onc e again diverted, this time by the charitable inclinations
of a judge who, ignoring the voices of survivors, severed the connection
between the victims of the theft and the proceeds of the recovery.

On the matter of insurance, a federal judge in Manhattan recently
approved a settlement in which fewer than 5 percent of the life
insurance policies that had been sold to Jews would be restituted,
allowing the Italian insurer, Generali, to escape with more than $2
billion in unjust enrichment. By not requiring Generali to disclose the
names of policyholders, the settlement amounts to a cover-up. Tens of
thousands of Holocaust survivors are being kept from the truth and will
likely be foreclosed from bringing individual claims against the
corporation that defrauded them.

The Jewish Claims Conference, an organization established in the 1950s
to recover and distribute Jewish property, has assets under its care
estimated at $1.3 billion to $3 billion, which includes a vast inventory
of cash, real estate and artwork. Despite the urgency of human
suffering, the conference insists that it cannot respond to the unmet
needs of Holocaust survivors.

Meanwhile, it spent about $32 million last year on programs dedicated to
“research, documentation and education.” Some of those millions went to
a program that paid $700,000 to a “consultant” — a friend of the
organization’s president — who, in an interview with The Jewish Week,
couldn’t recall what he had been asked to consult on. While the
conference supports many worthy projects, it is controlled not by
survivors but by surrogates, and operates with limited oversight and
financial accountability.

The Holocaust, so large an atrocity, has a way of overshadowing
everything, including its survivors. In focusing on the past in order to
prevent history from repeating itself, we have forgotten those who are
the direct casualties of this crime. Amid all the Holocaust hoopla the
survivors have become secondary.

This neglect is widespread. Even the United States Holocaust Memorial
Museum has regarded itself as primarily a home for historians and a
monument to history, but not as an institution that places survivors
first. Yet without their anguished presence the museum would not exist.

One demonstration of its inattentiveness involves the imminent transfer
to the museum of electronic copies of Germany’s Bad Arolsen archives,
which hold 50 million documents pertaining to the fate of more than 17.5
million victims. Unfortunately, the museum has failed to commit to
making the archives accessible on the Internet so that they can be
accessed as easily by Holocaust survivors as by visiting scholars.

So what can be done to honor those who survived but who seem to have
been forgotten?

First, all traceable assets held by the cla ims conference and the
negotiated settlements with Swiss bankers and European insurance
companies must be returned to their owners, with the remainder used for
survivor needs.

Second, Congress should pass the proposed Holocaust Insurance
Accountability bill, which would require insurers to publish the names
of policyholders and allow survivors to resolve claims on fair and
truthful terms.

Third, all Holocaust documentation, like the Bad Arolsen archives and
the recently disclosed Austrian war records, must be made readily
accessible. Survivors and their families must have easy access so family
histories can be recovered and property claims verified. These archives
cannot be just the province of scholars.

Finally, if both the World Jewish Congress and the claims conference
fail to achieve transparency in their operations, then Congress or law
enforcement should publicly account for the funds that have been
cont rolled by institutions that survivors never elected and did not
authorize.

Surviving the Holocaust, which was against all odds, is still a numbers
game. The percentages are always against the survivors. Nearly murdered,
shamefully defrauded and with the clock ticking, they wait for justice,
accountability and, most of all, respect.

Thane Rosenbaum, a professor of law at Fordham, is the author of “The
Myth of Moral Justice.”