michael urich 88.
(photo credit: )
Michael Urich was 10 years old and weighed 18 kilograms when he was released from Buchenwald.
Today he is 73 and devotes most of his free time to helping Holocaust survivors in Bnei Brak and Jerusalem - most of them haredim - identify the financial benefits that can make their lives easier.
"There is no reason why a Holocaust survivor should go without medication, food, dental care and other basic needs," says Urich, who learned the ins and outs of Holocaust compensation rules when he fought for his own benefits.
Whether it is the Treasury, the Claims Conference, the Fund for the Benefit of Holocaust Survivors, Generali Insurance or some other source, Urich points fellow survivors in the right direction.
"The main difference between haredi survivors and secular survivors is that the haredim are not as aware of their rights," says Urich, who was honored by Yad Vashem in 2002 with lighting one of the six torches at the main ceremony for Holocaust Remembrance Day.
"Tens of thousands of shekels languish, waiting for survivors to claim them. But it is difficult to publicize Holocaust survivors' rights. [Haredim] aren't as exposed to the news media, so we have to rely on word of mouth," he says.
Another problem is that the vast majority of haredim do not recognize Holocaust Remembrance Day. Traditionally, haredi leaders saw the day, which is held on the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, as a Zionist attempt to emphasize the physical heroism of the Holocaust survivors and ignore the spiritual dimension.
Opposition to commemorating Holocaust Remembrance Day is also a knee-jerk haredi reaction to anything that smacks of Zionism.
In Jewish tradition, during the Hebrew month of Nisan, outward expressions of mourning are discouraged. Most haredim commemorate the Holocaust on the 10th of Tevet, the day the Chief Rabbinate designated for reciting Kaddish for victims whose exact date of death is unknown. The day also commemorates the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem preceding the destruction of the First Temple.
Unlike Holocaust Remembrance Day, the 10th of Tevet is devoid of pomp and ceremony.
Meanwhile, Urich is working hard to encourage all survivors to step forward and claim what is rightfully theirs. He says that every Holocaust survivor, even if he or she is in perfect physical condition, is eligible for at least NIS 1,000 a month from the Finance Ministry.
The Claims Conference offers 850 euros per quarter.
German survivors are also eligible for compensation averaging about 500 euros a month. But if they receive money from Germany or the
Claims Conference, survivors forfeit benefits from the Treasury, says Urich.
The Fund for the Benefit of Holocaust Survivors provides nine hours per week of nursing and helps finance drugs, eyeglasses, walking canes and dental care for survivors whose monthly gross income is less than NIS 6,000.
Urich, a mattress salesman, splits his time between the Bnei Brak municipality and Misgav Lekashish, an organization sponsored by the Joint Distribution Committee that helps Jerusalem's haredi elderly receive the care they need in their homes.
According to Shoshi Horowitz, deputy head of Misgav Lekashish, understanding haredi sensibilities is central to working with the Holocaust survivors of Jerusalem.
"Everything we do is in consultation with the rabbis," says Horowitz, who defines herself as haredi. "We separate men and women and make sure that the activities we provide are suitable for a haredi public. That means no theater or movies or pop music."
Misgav Lekashish, which is responsible for more than 200 survivors, has three "warm homes" in Jerusalem that provide entertainment and activities.
Rabbi Yisrael Bondheim from the Beit Vegan neighborhood, head of the prestigious Kol Torah Yeshiva, provides the venue for one of the warm homes. Another one is located in the home of a relative of Rabbi Pinchas Sheinberg, head of Yeshivat Torah Or in Mattersdorf. And Miriam Kagan of Sanhedria hosts the third warm home.
"Haredi Holocaust survivors have their own distinctive difficulties," says Horowitz. "Survivors who are heads of families often have to support their children who do not work. They also have to pay for the weddings and for an apartment.
"But the haredi community is really supportive, not just of Holocaust survivors, of any
one who is having a tough time," she says.