88-year-old survivor still battling state for benefits

Government says it'sworking on problem - but others say not fast enough.

holocaust survivors 248 88 aj (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
holocaust survivors 248 88 aj
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
It's been nearly a year since the Knesset passed what was termed a "historic" law to help thousands of Holocaust survivors increase their monthly pensions and receive additional benefits from the state, but the lengthy bureaucratic process of checking the claims has meant the funding has still not reached those who need it, The Jerusalem Post has learned. Zehava - who preferred to use a different name for fear that her complaint could be used against her - told the Post Monday that she had been trying since August to help her 88-year-old survivor relative find out whether she was eligible for the NIS 1,000 additional monthly stipend. "Her situation is complicated," explained Zehava, an immigrant from South America. "[My relative] is of Czech origin and was in Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen during the Holocaust, but after the war she went to live in Venezuela under false papers." Zehava said that since the summer, she had been submitting and resubmitting various documents on her relative's behalf to the Department of Rehabilitation for Holocaust Survivors, which is overseen by the Finance Ministry, but each time was asked for additional papers. The first time Zehava sent the forms, she was told to prove that her relative had not already received assistance from the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany. "I brought them a document saying she had not received anything from the Claims Conference," said Zehava. "One month later, they came back and asked me to provide proof of [my relative's] original name and that she was in the camps. I went to Yad Vashem and got the information they needed." But earlier this month, when Zehava resent the forms to the Department of Rehabilitation for Holocaust Survivors, she was told it would take another month for them to verify their authenticity. "I really don't know what to do anymore," she said. "Everything takes a month and it's all working so slowly, but the time is passing away so fast for her." A Finance Ministry spokes-man said that the case was being dealt with, and now that the paperwork was in order, Zehava's relative would be notified in the coming days that she was indeed eligible for additional financial assistance. "The department of Rehabilitation for Holocaust Survivors has managed to organize itself in a very short time period to deal with thousands of additional requests from survivors," wrote the spokesman in a statement. "We have also increased manpower and provided training to our staff for working in this field." However, Natan Levon, chairman of advocacy group Ken Lazaken ("Yes to the Elderly"), which runs a hot line (1-800-300-339) to help elderly people understand their rights, countered Monday that bureaucracy and disorganization were widespread when it came to dealing with the additional benefits for the country's estimated 250,000 survivors. "We are currently preparing a report on the government bureaucracy and disorganization surrounding the Holocaust survivor benefits. It will be submitted to the State Comptroller's Office in the coming weeks," he said. "These offices do not work in favor of the people, and consequently people are not aware of their rights," continued Levon. "Most people don't have a clue whether they're eligible for these benefits or not. Nearly a year has passed, and the mess just seems to be growing." The Finance Ministry spokesman responded that the ministry had not received complaints from lobby groups, but that it was willing to look into their grievances. Last Thursday, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, together with Welfare and Social Services Minister Isaac Herzog and Pensioner Affairs Minister Rafi Eitan, inaugurated a new call center aimed at reaching out to thousands of survivors who could be eligible and helping them and their family members navigate the complicated claims system. A spokeswoman for the Welfare and Social Services Ministry said the center had been scheduled to open several months ago, but had been held up for technical reasons. Since it opened on Thursday, the call center had received close to 8,000 requests for information and assistance, she said. However, on Monday, Zehava said she'd tried calling the new hot line number (*9444) and found it was constantly busy. One attempt by the Post found that it was indeed busy, but a second call went through to a help center representative who spoke English. Ken Lazaken's Levon said it was still too early to judge the effectiveness of new center. "We will just have to wait and see if this will really help the people who need it," he said.