Historians dispute Holocaust ‘survivor’ and ‘refugee’ labels
By Ofri Ilani

The agreement that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert signed with representatives of Holocaust survivors’ organizations ensures a monthly stipend for all Israelis who lived under Nazi occupation. However, more than 150,000 people, defined as “Holocaust refugees” or the “second circle” of survivors, are not included in this arrangement. Holocaust historians disagree over the morality and logic of such a division.

Who are the refugees? In 1939, when the Nazis invaded Poland, some 300,000 Jews, mostly Polish, headed for the Soviet Union. In June 1941, when Germany invaded the Soviet Union, some of these refugees found themselves under Nazi domination for two years. Others fled eastward, together with Jews from the western regions of the Soviet Union, to Siberia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and other areas. In many cases, the Soviet regime even deported the Jews in these regions to Siberia and central Asia.

“The division into two circles is completely political and lacks any historical logic,” said Dr. Daniel Blatman, a Holocaust historian from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “Some of these refugees came to Israel aged and destitute. There is no doubt that these are people who were hurt by the war and the Nazi period. There is no difference between someone who lived in the ghetto and survived and someone who became a refugee and was exiled to Siberia. Who suffered more cannot be determined.”

According to Professor Dina Porat, director of the Stephen Roth Institute for the Study of Contemporary Anti-Semitism and Racism at Tel Aviv University, “these people were not considered survivors in the past. All through the years, survivors were defined as those who had lived under Nazi rule for a significant amount of time. It’s not only those who lived in ghettos and camps, but those who hid, for example in forests, convents or with farmers. These must also be considered survivors.”

Porat believes that dividing those entitled to stipends into two circles – survivors and refugees – is justified. “People in the second circle are not survivors; they are merely needy, and there are needy people in all kinds of groups within Israeli society, not only in this one. Their world may have been destroyed because they had to flee, but they did not live under Nazi rule.”

“I would not make a hierarchy of suffering; rather, I would classify according to need,” said Professor Idit Zertal of the University of Basel, Switzerland. “There are camp survivors who today do not need economic assistance, and on the other hand, there are people who fled who are in dire straits.”

According to Zertal, “all these years, Israel has played the Holocaust card in every possible discussion, but the survivors, the first victims, have been squeezed out of the debate. From the state’s point of view, survivors are a nuisance.”