Following the Holocaust survivors' recent protest, their abject poverty finally entered Israel's hall of shame. Those who live under Kassams in Sderot reside in old apartments that do not have reinforced security rooms in which to take cover. Neither do they have the physical capability to run to a neighborhood shelter. For courage under relentless fire, The Jerusalem Post chooses the Holocaust survivors in Sderot as our People of the Year
As a girl, Tzila Greenberg survived the Nazi occupation of her Romanian hometown. As a young woman she immigrated to Israel, settling in Kiryat Shmona. After rockets rained down on the northern border city during the Yom Kippur War, she moved with her family to Sderot. At 78, she lives there today, a widow and an invalid.
"We moved here," she said, "because we wanted to give our children a better life."
On the dining room table of her old tenement apartment is an unpaid bill from Magen David Adom - NIS 750 for an ambulance that took her husband, Mordechai, to the hospital before he died a few months ago. Spending about NIS 1,000 a month on medicine, she has to borrow from her family to get through the month. Except for the times the ambulance came to take her to the hospital, she hasn't left her apartment in the last three years.
"Between the economic problems and the security problems," she says, "it's not easy."
Greenberg belongs to not one but two populations of Israelis who made the nation feel guilty for their suffering over the last year - Holocaust survivors and Sderot residents. For the latter, being in the spotlight was nothing new - for the last two years, during which Israelis at large have felt all but completely free of worries about terror, the people of Sderot have been almost alone on the confrontation line. While the IDF has bombed away relentlessly at Gaza, it has failed to shut down the Kassams, leading Sderot residents to become bitter toward the government, and toward "Tel Avivis" and others in the safe, carefree center of the country who seem, in their view, indifferent to their predicament.
For Holocaust survivors, though, the past year was the first time since possibly the 1961 Eichmann trial that they have come to the fore of national attention - because of the appalling extent of their poverty. Some 70,000 Holocaust survivors in the country - roughly one in every four - are impoverished. They're often forced to choose between buying medicine, buying food or paying their utility bills. Many take their meals at soup kitchens.
This year, due to a couple of high-profile rallies opposite the Knesset by survivors, along with heightened media attention to their plight, the poverty of Holocaust survivors this year entered Israel's hall of shame. It was that much more conspicuous in contrast to the great economic growth and consumer boom the country was experiencing. In response, the government and Knesset increased the survivors' financial benefits - at first voting them a gradual increase that would have begun at NIS 80 a month, and then, following a national outcry and a controversial rally that included some survivors wearing yellow stars on their lapels, the increase was raised substantially.
"This helped me," said Yehudit Alon, 78, a survivor from Romania who's been living in Sderot since 1964. "After 60 years, the survivors finally dared to open their mouths, to say 'enough.' They did this on their own." She counted herself among the majority of survivors who can afford to live decently.
In their study three years ago, Jenny Brodsky, an expert on aging at JDC-Brookdale Institute, and Hebrew University demographer Sergio Della Pergola found that 35 percent of Holocaust survivors here require economic aid, such as free blankets or heaters, to get through the winter cold; 25% have to choose between spending money on food or on other basic needs, like medicines and utilities; 16% can't afford regular phone calls and visits to their children; and 13% suffer "food insecurity," meaning they can't afford to eat nutritiously on a dependable basis.
On top of this, Holocaust survivors in Sderot live in old apartments that do not have reinforced security rooms in which to take cover. Neither do they have the physical capability to run to a neighborhood shelter. These people more than meet the definition of "the truly needy." With this in mind, the Jewish Agency recently gave NIS 6,000 grants to each of 69 Holocaust survivors living in the city who were deemed by the local welfare department to be in dire financial need.
ON THIS DAY, there were no Kassams landing in the city, only one false alarm. We had just entered the city when the "code red" - tzeva adom - was broadcast over loudspeakers on the streets. The few pedestrians on the streets began running for bomb shelters. The previous day, however, a rocket had exploded about 20 meters from a day care center filled with little children. A splintered, fallen eucalyptus tree at the edge of a neighborhood was the only remaining sign of that attack.
Even without the Kassams, Sderot is a depressing place. The apartment buildings are old and crumbling. The trash isn't picked up, and the stray cats have a field day in the garbage bins. This was also the day police investigators entered city hall and carried out boxes of files in their corruption probe against Mayor Eli Moyal and other municipal officials. (Moyal declared his innocence but suspended himself for the duration of the investigation.)
To an outside observer, there seem two possible, contradictory ways for a Holocaust survivor to react when they hear the code red and feel their apartments shake all around them upon the impact of a Kassam - either the trauma is heightened by the trauma they went through in their childhood, or it seems small by comparison. The answer, it turns out, is that different survivors react to the Kassams in different ways.
"If it happens at night, I wrap the blanket around me tighter," said Asya Chopsky, 79, who, with her Kiev family, stayed one step ahead of the advancing Nazis, eventually landing up in Kazakhstan, from which she immigrated to Sderot in 1990. Looking at her husband, Semyan, 82, who has similar war memories of ducking bombs, hiding out, fighting off starvation and freezing temperatures, she says, "He just turns over and goes back to sleep."
Sara Herskowitz, 90, who last saw her mother and sister when they were pulled out of line at Auschwitz in the selektzia, said that when the Kassams fall, "I shake with fear."
Alon, whose father was shot to death by Romanian fascists, and who spent the war with the rest of her family doing forced labor at Romanian farms, where they "lived in the barn with the animals, eating the scraps thrown out for them," said she remains motionless when the code red sounds and the Kassam falls. "At night I have nightmares. Before the Kassams began, I didn't have them," she added.
Several Holocaust survivors in Sderot take antidepressants and other medications because of the Kassams, say volunteers for Amcha, an organization that provides social and therapeutic services to Holocaust survivors, and which recently opened a branch in the city.
One of the understandings about Holocaust survivors that emerged this year, due to vastly increased attention, is that they aren't limited to those who survived the Nazi death camps.
Dr. Natan Kellermann, a leading official with Amcha, explains: "They weren't in concentration camps, they don't have numbers on their arms, so are they Holocaust survivors? Well, they were on the run from the Nazis, they suffered terribly... so yes, they are Holocaust survivors."
Of the five survivors interviewed, only Hershkowitz was in a concentration camp. But all of their lives were brutalized by the Nazis.
"My father did slave labor for five years, breaking rocks," said Greenberg. "In the winter, we stole branches from our neighbors to make a fire. My mother would make watery corn soup and when we were fortunate, she also brought home a radish. I was like a stick.
"We were caught between the Germans on one side and the Russians on the other, and when we went out we had to dodge the bombs. Once we were walking and a German soldier put a gun to my little brother's neck and asked where we were going. Luckily he was smart enough to tell him, 'To the German side,' otherwise we would have been killed.
"After the Germans surrendered and the Russians took over the city, a Russian soldier came into our house, grabbed my father, pointed a gun in his face and said he would kill him if he didn't give him vodka and cigarettes. We screamed out the window to the Red Army officers for help, and the soldier left us alone."
AND THE NAZIS weren't the survivors' only tormentors. "After the war, we went back to Hungary, where there were a lot of anti-Semites who wanted to kill the Jews," said Hershkowitz. "Soon we were able to leave for Israel."
Alon's direct persecutors weren't the Germans, but the Nazi-allied Romanian fascist soldiers who sought to expel the Jews to Russia, herding them northward through the countryside. Of the local Romanians to whom they were enslaved, she recalls, "Some of them were nice, but some of them - you could see the hatred for Jews in their eyes."
Another fact about impoverished Holocaust survivors in Israel that came to wide attention this year is that under the new, broader definition of survivor - including anyone victimized by the Nazis, whether or not in concentration camps - the majority of the poor, some 50,000 of them, are not veteran immigrants from Europe, but more recent immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Virtually all Holocaust survivors who take meals at the country's soup kitchens come from there.
Unlike European concentration camp survivors who receive monthly reparation payments, or renta, from Germany, these Holocaust survivors received only a one-time German reparations payment equal to about NIS 14,000. Consequently, the government and Knesset earmarked a considerable amount of increased aid to them.
But despite a little more money and a lot more attention, there is no happy ending for these people, especially not in Sderot. After seven years of Kassams, they have no better idea how to stop the rockets than anyone else.
It was the day of the local school strike to protest the government's inability to stop the Kassams. For Tzila Greenberg, the strike brought back memories. "My granddaughter was kept home from school today because of the war here, and when I was a girl I had to leave school because of the war there. It's like something that gets passed from generation to generation."