by Menachem Z. Rosensaft
Special To The Jewish Week

As chairman of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, commonly known as the Claims Conference, and in many other positions of lay leadership, Julius Berman has given years of dedicated service to the Jewish community. I worked closely with him for several years in the Manhattan law firm of which he was a senior partner, and thus can speak with some authority about both his commitment to Jewish issues and his fundamental decency.Unfortunately, however, a statement made by Berman in these pages last week reflects a troubling, albeit, I am sure, unintentional, insensitivity to the very real anguish of Holocaust survivors. This response, then, is written not in anger but in sadness.Late last year, a Claims Conference negotiating team obtained an additional $145 million from the German government for home care services for survivors during 2011. Some 800 of between 13,000 and 18,000 survivors in south Florida, as well as others throughout the United States, already receive up to 25 hours a week of such care. Rather than augmenting the home care available to them, the Claims Conference determined, in what Staff Writer Stewart Ain of this newspaper termed a “difficult moral triage,” that the bulk of the increased funding would be used to benefit survivors around the world who presently receive no home care or less than 25 hours a week (“Fla. Survivors Caught In Cruel Funding Irony,” Dec. 31).Reacting to the article containing criticism of the Claims Conference’s allocation of these funds, Berman observed that “the extent of the need” of survivors in countries of the former Soviet Union, Argentina and Romania “outstrips” that of survivors in the United States. “The life of survivors in South Florida,” he wrote, “would seem like paradise to the elderly double victims of Nazism and Communism who are the most destitute Jews in the world and for whom Claims Conference funding is a literal lifeline. Molly Gruda, one of the South Florida survivors featured in the story, survived uterine cancer in addition to Auschwitz and a Nazi death march, suffers from spinal stenosis and congestive pulmonary disease, keeps an oxygen tank and nebulizer beside her recliner, and needs a wheelchair to get around.She is but one of many who live in difficult circumstances, often at or below the poverty line. The basic problem with Berman’s remark is that it will be read not just by the Claims Conference’s critics at whom it was aimed, but also by Molly Gruda and other survivors in North America who are certain to be deeply hurt by what they will interpret as a singular lack of compassion for their plight.In fairness, the entire reparations debate has escalated out of hand. David Schaecter, president of the Florida-based Holocaust Survivors Foundation, USA, churlishly dismissed the $145 million in additional home care funds made available by the German government as so “woefully inadequate” as to constitute “a blatant and ugly gesture that it is meaningless and hollow.” Schaecter’s real objection, of course, is that the newly obtained resources will benefit survivors other than his constituency. Other discordant noises indicate that the Claims Conference might benefit from an exorcism of sorts. The Board of Deputies of British Jews, a member agency of the Conference, has released a report criticizing the Claims Conference’s procedures with respect to the disposition of real property in the former East Germany. Israeli Holocaust survivors are boycotting an allocations advisory committee in protest against the Claims Conference’s policy of funding hospitals in Israel rather than focusing more narrowly on social services for survivors. In November, 17 individuals, including six present and former Claims Conference employees, were indicted for defrauding two funds administered by the Conference to the tune of $42 million.When the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants, also a Claims Conference member, urged the appointment of an ombudsman to represent the interests of the survivors, Berman asked, “What would an ombudsman do?”For starters, an ombudsman might have suggested that gratuitously proclaiming what amounts to hierarchical degrees of need and suffering among survivors is an awful idea. The ombudsman might have pointed out that one survivor’s anxieties are not likely to be eased by a public reminder that available funds are being used to assuage another’s pain.An ombudsman might also have advised the Claims Conference leadership that a 26-person committee to review its allocations policies and procedures that does not include a single son, daughter or grandchild of survivors is flawed from its inception. The primary responsibility for the well being of aging, often infirm survivors is overwhelmingly shouldered by members of the so-called second and third generations. Simply put, to exclude us from this discussion is a serious error. The Claims Conference has performed, and continues to perform, a tremendously important function. Many, if not most, of its critics are similarly honorable and well intentioned. For the sake of the sacred cause to which they have dedicated themselves, Julius Berman and his colleagues should undertake a comprehensive, broad-based and open consultation with all relevant stakeholders to determine how the Claims Conference can best serve the needs of Holocaust survivors in their declining years.
Menachem Z. Rosensaft is vice president of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants.