For decades now, the plight of thousands upon thousands of Holocaust survivors
throughout the world has been getting worse and worse.
the moral imperative of not abandoning these victims of Nazi persecution, US
Vice President Joe Biden has announced a new multi-pronged initiative of the
Obama administration to address the pressing contemporary medical and social
needs of the men and women who were mercilessly persecuted by Adolf Hitler’s
Third Reich and its accomplices.
More than 68 years after Allied troops
liberated the German death and concentration camps in which millions of European
Jews had been ruthlessly murdered, many of those who miraculously survived live
precariously, in dire circumstances.
By definition elderly – the youngest
child survivors are today in their very late sixties and early seventies, and
those who emerged from the Shoah as adults or adolescents are in their eighties
and nineties – they are more often than not in failing health. As World Jewish
Congress President Ronald S. Lauder has emphasized, assisting them is an “urgent
Deprived of the safety net of the families and communities that
were destroyed, an appallingly large number – between a quarter and one third of
the survivors in the United States and Israel, and a far greater proportion of
those in Eastern and Central Europe – also live at or below the poverty
The meager reparations many but by no means all survivors receive
from Germany are utterly inadequate to enable far too many of them to confront
their declining years with even a modicum of comfort, let alone security. Thus,
they are all too often forced to decide whether to buy food or medication,
whether to heat their homes in the winter or get their glasses fixed.
be sure, they have not been without champions.
Greg Schneider, the
executive vice president of the Conference of Material Claims Against Germany,
more commonly known as the Claims Conference, has long been a staunch and highly
effective advocate on their behalf. Earlier this year, following negotiations
with the Claims Conference spearheaded by former US deputy treasury secretary
and undersecretary of state Stuart E.
Eizenstat, the German government
agreed to provide close to $1 billion for desperately needed home care for
Since 1998, US District Judge Edward R. Korman of the Eastern
District of New York has mandated the distribution of millions of dollars to
needy survivors from the $1.25 billion settlement with Swiss banks accused of
retaining and concealing funds belonging to Holocaust victims; Jewish social
services agencies such as Self Help Community Services have dedicated themselves
for decades to providing desperately needed support for the erstwhile victims of
Nazi Germany; and the Baltimore- based Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation
has just given the Claims Conference a $4 million grant to provide emergency
assistance for survivors in North America.
On the whole, however, large
numbers of survivors still fall between the cracks. Accounts of elderly
survivors suffering from debilitating illnesses who do not receive adequate care
are heartbreaking. So is the realization that society as a whole, including much
of the organized Jewish community in the United States, has failed to adequately
step forward to meet the needs of survivors who go hungry, or are
At the conclusion of the June 2009 Holocaust Era Assets Conference
in Prague, representatives of 46 governments emphasized “the special social and
medical needs of all survivors and strongly support both public and private
efforts in their respective states to enable them to live in dignity with the
necessary basic care that it implies.” To their credit, President Barack Obama
and Vice President Biden have now undertaken to implement these
Addressing a meeting of the American Jewish Joint
Distribution Committee in Washington, DC, on December 10, Biden said that the
Obama administration will “appoint a special envoy to the Department of Health
and Human Services charged with the mission to reach out across federal agencies
to help find the kind of support that nonprofits need to effectively deliver
services like home care, transportation, meal delivery and other services to
these survivors living in poverty.
This will make the government more
responsive to a Hungarian survivor in the Bronx who needs a wheelchair or the
elderly woman with memories of Warsaw ghetto who needs a ride to the
This alone is welcome news. Internationally-oriented
organizations like the Claims Conference need to balance the competing needs of
survivors across the globe.
Sadly, it is cold comfort for survivors
living in Brooklyn or South Florida to be told that the circumstances prevailing
in Latvia or Ukraine are more desperate than theirs.
The new HHS special
envoy will presumably focus primarily if not exclusively on ways to alleviate
the misery and despair that individual survivors in the United States are forced
to confront on a daily basis. His or her mandate will certainly include making
sure that survivors and the organizations that serve them are able to access all
available federal and other services and resources.
Vice President Biden
went on to say that the other elements of this initiative would include “a new
partnership through AmeriCorps to bring together volunteers with community-based
organizational skills that support local Nazi victims living in isolation and
poverty” as well as “public-private partnership opportunities with foundations,
nonprofits and private sectors to increase the resources available to support
these survivors and their unmet needs.”
The administration’s initiative
comes in the wake of a bipartisan Congressional measure, the Responding to
Urgent needs of Survivors of the Holocaust (RUSH) Act, intended to add Holocaust
survivors to the list of groups that receive preference for services under the
Older Americans Act.
Perhaps the most promising aspect of Vice President
Biden’s proposals is that they are eminently feasible.
They are not a
panacea. Nothing is or can ever be. But if promptly carried out with the unified
support and participation of the American Jewish community, they could ease the
lot of thousands of survivors in a meaningful way.
The writer, the son of
two Holocaust survivors, is general counsel of the World Jewish Congress. He
teaches about the law of genocide and war crimes trials at the law schools of
Columbia and Cornell universities.