By Elan Steinberg
NEW YORK (JTA) — Elderly Holocaust survivors are in fear.Last week the U.S. Justice Department charged employees of the Conference on Material Claims Against Germany, known as the Claims Conference, with participating in a $42.5 million fraud that saw the plunder of two major programs of Holocaust reparations. According to prosecutors, the thefts had been going on for nearly two decades. At agencies and offices such as ours that deal with the survivor community, the phone calls were emotional and desperate. Of course the reactions reflected the palpable anger and outrage felt by the entire Jewish community.“How could this happen?” and “How could it have gone on for so long?” were the repeated refrains.But we were haunted by the questions and concern posed most often. Survivors, in their 80s and 90s, were afraid. For all too many of our fragile remnant of the greatest Jewish tragedy of our time, the present circumstances are one of bleakness and uncertainty. Often a reparations check supplemented by a Social Security payment are all that stand between an elderly survivor and their daily needs — food, medicine, utilities. They were too frightened to be angry. They wanted to know if their slim payments were in jeopardy or what was to be of their applications for restitution funds.Many knew that following discovery of the fraud at the Claims Conference, payments and applications for the Hardship Fund were suspended for three months. During that period even legitimate applicants in dire need could not receive payments from the fund. There was also a great deal of misinformation, or more precisely a lack of information, which was driving these fears. We needed to assure survivors that the Claims Conference has said repeatedly that their future payments are not at risk. But no, we could not tell them what the full extent of the fraud might reveal and what the ultimate consequences might be.