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President Moshe Katsav on Sunday promised a delegation of Auschwitz survivors representing The Foundation for the Benefit of Holocaust Victims in Israel that he would speak to Finance Minister Ehud Olmert to urge him to substantially increase the annual allocation to the foundation.
At the beginning of January, the foundation announced that it could no longer provide funds for nursing care for Holocaust survivors or grants for the purchase of prosthetics, eyeglasses, hearing aids, dentures and medicine not covered by the health basket.
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The announcement, according to Polish-born foundation chairman Zeev Factor, fell on deaf ears. Neither government ministers nor the Knesset took up the cause.
Factor cited a Holocaust Survivors in Israel report prepared by the JDC Brookdale Institute in which surveys indicated that by 2010 the needs of survivors would rise to an all-time high.
In addition to the aches, pains and illnesses that are generally associated with the aging process, in many instances Holocaust survivors carry with them residual ailments that can be traced to their inhumane treatment by the Nazis.
For various political and bureaucratic reasons, many survivors have missed out on restitution payments, or have received symbolic payments that are so meager as to be of little use.
Numerous Holocaust survivors subsist on the sparse pensions they receive from the National Insurance Institute. As a result, said Factor, 10,000-12,000 survivors in Israel die each year. While it is true that they are elderly, he said, it is a lack of assistance, more than advancing age, to which their deaths can be attributed.
"We've knocked at every door in Israel and abroad, but it's not an issue that arouses attention," said Factor. "It's not sexy. All we have is a distorted chapter in Jewish history that is approaching its end. The attitude is such that our story becomes a travesty on top of a tragedy."
Noah Flug, chairman of the central group of organizations of Holocaust survivors, said that when Binyamin Netanyahu was finance minister, they had brought the case before him, and he had been sympathetic, and had declared in the presence of other Knesset members that he would be prepared to upgrade the allocation - but there was no progress beyond that.
The foundation's budget for 2005 was $38 million, of which slightly more than 95 percent came from the Jewish Claims Conference. According to members of the delegation, Claims Conference representatives questioned why they had to shoulder so much of the burden and why the government didn't give more.
If the government does not enhance its share of the budget, said Shmuel Reinish, a member of the foundation's executive board, the Claims Conference will withdraw some of its funding, and the situation will be even more drastic.
All that the foundation is asking for from the government is an additional $10m. per annum, said Flug.
Foundation director-general Dubby Arbel said that between 45%-50% of the budget was needed for nursing care. The best that the foundation can provide is nine hours of home help a week.
Arbel said that as a native Israeli, he felt ashamed and uncomfortable that Holocaust survivors were denied the respect that is due to them. Survivors who had applied for help in 2004 were still on the waiting list, he said, "because we don't have the money."
Katsav, who has dealt with Holocaust issues in nearly all his state visits to more than a dozen European countries, was visibly annoyed and upset. "This is shocking," he exclaimed. "It gives me the shudders. It is impossible to remain indifferent to this situation."
At Factor's request, Katsav instructed his aides to arrange a state gathering of Holocaust survivors as soon as possible.
Katsav and his wife, Gila, are scheduled to leave for a state visit to Greece Monday evening after attending a special Tu Bishvat session of the Knesset marking its 57th anniversary.
Yad Vashem chairman Avner Shalev will accompany the Katsavs, who plan to return home Friday.
In Athens, Katsav will be the guest of President Karolos Papoulias. Papoulias invited Katsav when he was in Israel to attend the enthronement of Greek Patriarch of Jerusalem Theophilos last year.
Katsav will also meet with Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis, Parliament President Anna Psarouda-Benaki, Greek political party leaders and members of the Jewish community. Papoulias and Katsav will travel together to Thessaloniki, where they will visit the Jewish Museum and the Holocaust Monument.
Prior to World War II, Thessaloniki (Salonika) was home to a vibrant Jewish community and the main hub of Jewish life in Greece. There were then approximately 80,000 Jews in Greece. During the war, 90 percent were deported to Nazi death camps, where most of them perished. After the war, only 5,000 Jews remained in Greece.
Katsav's visit is the first official visit to the Hellenic Republic by an Israeli president.
When Katsav meets Karamanlis, the two will have more to talk about than politics. Both are the fathers of twins - and in each case a boy and a girl.