The statistics are jarring, if not shameful: Among the approximately 180,000 elderly Holocaust survivors living in Israel, 25 percent live below the poverty line.
Perhaps more unnerving, each of them is legally entitled to an average of NIS 9,000 a month from various government funds earmarked specifically for their needs, yet half remain unaware of such life-saving resources, or encounter red tape when attempting to access the lifeline.
Moreover, among those who are aware of the money owed to them for their profound pain and suffering, many are charged prohibitive rates from attorneys who pocket a sizable percentage of the funds.
Aviva Silberman, founder of Spring for Holocaust Survivors, is on a mission to change that before it’s too late.
A seasoned attorney who made aliya from Switzerland in 1988 at age 18, Silberman founded the non-profit, known in Hebrew as Aviv LeNitzolei HaShoah, in 2007 “to ensure that each and every Holocaust survivor lives with dignity and welfare.”
Since then, by simply helping thousands of survivors fill out paper work, Spring for Holocaust Survivors has single-handedly procured roughly NIS 250 million via the Finance Ministry, German government, and Claims Conference.
Still, Silberman, who does not charge survivors a single shekel for her services, says she is racing against an unforgiving clock to ensure that the destitute 45,000 survivors in Israel can live a dignified and comfortable life in their remaining days.
“There are a lot of rights for survivors that they don’t know about,” she said on the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day. “That was a problem when I started Spring for Holocaust Survivors, and it’s a problem now.”
Indeed, according to Silberman, tens of thousands of Israeli Holocaust survivors do not take advantage of their rights under the law and existing programs.
“They are unaware of benefits due to them from Israel's Finance Ministry, from Germany, from the Conference on Jewish Material Claims against Germany, from the Foundation for the Benefit of Holocaust Victims in Israel, and other agencies,” she said.
Silberman said she first learned about the financial crisis facing survivors in 1992, during a nation-wide university strike while attending law school, when she volunteered at a geriatric home in Petah Tikva to help care for the residents.
“The home’s social director told me that the survivors living there were entitled to a new pension because that year Germany reunited, and decided via the Claims Conference to give new rights by offering money to those who were previously not recognized,” she recalled.
However, the seemingly simple task of filling out a form mailed to them by the German government presented a major roadblock for many, who were already in poor health.
“So, since I spoke German, I helped dozens of them fill out the forms and mail them back. Then I discovered that many people in Israel did not realize their rights for compensation and social welfare from both the German government and Israeli government,” Silberman continued.
“These people are old, and it’s difficult for them to understand what program and benefits are relevant to them because each program has different criteria for offering assistance. There are some attorneys in Israel who survivors turn to and the attorneys charge them as much as the law allows, and that takes important money away from them.”
Deeply distressed by the high numbers of survivors across the country who either did not know how to access the money owed them, or had funds siphoned off by lawyers, Silberman said she created Spring for Holocaust Survivors to ensure every shekel went into their pockets.
“Unfortunately, even the professionals and volunteers working with Holocaust survivors are unaware of the latter’s basic rights, and cannot guide these elderly people through the bureaucratic maze,” she lamented.
“Those paying out the pensions and grants know only what is being done in their own area of expertise, and cannot provide survivors with a complete picture of their rights. What we learned at our organization is that there are many things we can do to get benefits without charging them any money, because we want them to keep all the money for themselves.”
To streamline the process, Silberman created a website to reply to all queries, free of charge, which over 300,000 visitors, including the children of survivors, have since accessed.
Additionally, the organization has trained over 8,000 volunteers and professionals who have gone on to aid over 80,000 survivors, while responding to 40,000 aid requests.
Spring for Holocaust Survivors has also opened eight centers to help survivors fill out paper work, and mails monthly newsletters delineating their legal and financial rights to caregivers across the country, while hosting radio programs and lectures.
“We have opened eight ‘entitlement centers’ – weekly individual and professional consulting centers for Holocaust survivors in their communities in the cities of Haifa, Kfar-Saba, Ramat- Gan, Ashdod, Hod Hasharon, Modi’in, Acco and Tel-Aviv,” said Silberman.
“This unique project was initiated with the JDC Organization as a joint venture, with the aim of establishing 14 centers in cooperation with local authorities in the next two years, which will significantly extend our scope and increase the number of survivors that we can assist.”
Shlomo Adler, 86, and his wife Esther, 82, who live in Kfar Saba and have been married for 64 years, are among the thousands of survivors who have received aid from the organization.
Shlomo, who made aliya in 1947, and fought in the War of Independence after being confined to slave labor in his hometown of Bolechow, Poland, said he first contacted Spring for Holocaust Survivors in 2011.
“I actually got payments from the Germans 30 years ago because of my health, but it was not enough to make a normal living,” he said on Tuesday. “With the assistance of Aviva, I then got social security from Germany, which I was entitled to. Then she helped me and my wife get aid from Israel’s Finance Ministry.”
“She sent a very nice woman named Linda to our apartment, and she had so much patience and listened to our story, and arranged to bring us above the water,” he continued.
Since then, the Adler’s, who have two children, five grandchildren, and two great-grand children, have been able to live in relative comfort, and help provide for their growing family’s needs.
“It was important for us to have money to be the kind of parents, grandparents and great grandparents that we wanted to be,” Shlomo said.
“I appreciate what they do, and am happy to be a witness to their activities because they are doing a holy service for Holocaust survivors because there are too many living in poverty and this is a shame for our government and everybody.”
“I am ashamed that I am not doing enough,” he added.
Adler said he knows of many survivors who are in poor health and desperate need of financial aid.
Asked what message he would impart to the thousands in the at-risk group, he responded: “I would say to them: ‘Don’t be shy.”
“Don’t live in poverty,” he continued. “Approach Aviva, and I am confident she will help you.”
In the meantime, Silberman said her fight against the clock continues.
“We are running against time, because these people are very old, and tomorrow may be too late,” she said. “We want to help them today to get the maximum, and to live a better life.”
Noting that Spring for Holocaust Survivors does not charge any of its clients, Silberman added that she relies on donations to the organization to keep it operational.
“We call on everybody to lend a hand in this project to help survivors get our help for free,” she said. “The idea is to provide services for free, which we do, but we need donations to continue our mission.”
To learn more about Spring for Holocaust Survivors, go to avivshoa.co.il