Meet the lawyer helping Israelis, Holocaust survivors with their rights

Attorney Aviva Silberman spent two decades helping Holocaust survivors. Now she’s turning to other challenges

 Aviva with an Aviv for Holocaust Survivors’ volunteer and survivor Yehudit Tris-Yerushalmi.  (photo credit: BENNY LAPID)
Aviva with an Aviv for Holocaust Survivors’ volunteer and survivor Yehudit Tris-Yerushalmi.
(photo credit: BENNY LAPID)
Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)

Aviva Silberman never seems to relax. “I’m so excited about the latest project I’m working on,” the native German speaker says in accent-free, quick-fire Hebrew.

She made aliyah in 1988 at 18 from Zurich, where she had a Zionist upbringing and was active in the Bnei Akiva youth movement. The young olah enrolled to study law at Bar-Ilan University where she met her husband, David, an immigrant from Copenhagen. “Sadly, most of the friends I arrived with couldn’t get into university here and went back to Switzerland, where they could study for free,” she recalls.

Then came the 1992 students’ strike. “All studies were suspended and I had time on my hands, so I volunteered to help at a local nursing home where there were several German and Yiddish speakers. I planned to meet and talk with them, because they always have interesting stories to tell. Then the day I arrived a social worker asked me to translate a pile of intimidating official letters in brown envelopes addressed to tenants from the German government.”

The letters described increased compensation [commonly known as renta] and wider support criteria for Holocaust survivors, on condition that they fill out the appropriate forms in German or English, and she found herself helping them through the bureaucratic processes.

“It was then that I began to realize that so many Holocaust survivors are unaware of their rights.”

Aviva Silberman

“It was then that I began to realize that so many Holocaust survivors are unaware of their rights,” she recalls. “I returned to studies after the strike ended, but still went to that nursing home every Thursday. Holocaust survivors’ rights are not taught in university. I slowly learned the whole sphere through case management of the nursing home residents, and discovered that there are many rights that people are unaware of – like extra rights for those with low income, sickness benefits, and expanded criteria for receiving support, for example.”

 Aviva Silberman giving a lecture to National Insurance Institute volunteers on survivors’ rights in Netanya. (credit: AVIV FOR HOLOCAUST SURVIVORS) Aviva Silberman giving a lecture to National Insurance Institute volunteers on survivors’ rights in Netanya. (credit: AVIV FOR HOLOCAUST SURVIVORS)

It took a few years for her to realize the full extent of this information gap, by which time she was a practicing attorney. When her third child was born, Silberman decided to leave the law office where she worked, but continued to voluntarily help Holocaust survivors. Six months later, she noticed a want ad to head a new information center for Holocaust survivors established by former Social and Diaspora Affairs minister Rabbi Michael Melchior. She landed the job immediately, thanks to her in-depth knowledge of the field and her language skills.

“The role suited me perfectly. Several private law firms do this work for money, but I couldn’t justify this ethically and didn’t want to work for them. I found myself scouring the country, lecturing Holocaust survivors about their rights. But I was alone and couldn’t get the message out by myself. It’s not that I planned to be a lawyer in the Holocaust survivors’ rights sphere... and I never thought of setting up an amuta [non-profit organization, or NGO]. I got there by chance. I say it’s from heaven. My husband pushed me into expanding the network, and that meant establishing an amuta. I had five children at home, but he said ‘there’s no time. The survivors are growing old and dying every day.’

“At first I didn’t listen to him,” she admits, “then one day, after I addressed a group of social workers, one of them approached me and said ‘I’ve been a social worker for 30 years and didn’t know any of this. How do we get Holocaust survivors and their families to know what is due to them?’ Then more and more people came to me, and pressured me into establishing the amuta in 2007 here in my living room, with friends.”

Cutting through red tape

Israeli bureaucracy is notoriously slow, and registering an amuta normally took at least six months. “The day I traveled to the Justice Ministry office to hand in the request, Maariv’s front-page headline screamed about Holocaust survivors’ despicable living conditions, so I placed the newspaper with the application forms and waited outside. By 4:00 that afternoon, Aviv for Holocaust Survivors was registered.”

The name, she explains, was also the result of peer pressure. “Everybody [in the field] already knew me – they told me it was good to link it to my name – and ‘Aviv’ (the season “spring” in Hebrew) has a positive connotation.”

She started to work from home, together with another lawyer. “We learned to get close to the Holocaust survivors, to condense the information they need. I’ve taught lawyers, social workers and volunteers how to help them. You have to be half a lawyer and half a social worker to do this properly. Our vision is that they will live in dignity and welfare. We emphasize ‘dignity’ because many survivors have reported in the past a degrading attitude from German and [Israeli] officials, who would accuse them of fabricating stories about financial or medical problems. Dignity is the most important aspect.”

Their first program was in cooperation with the kibbutz movement. “We instructed kibbutz members how to maximize the rights of their aging members. Kibbutzim were then becoming privatized and many faced a desperate economic plight. Through the compensations we achieved for them [from Germany and Israel], the kibbutzniks have aged with dignity. To this day, kibbutznikim continue to support this project.”

One conclusion was to centralize all the relevant information into a single website (www.avivshoa.co.il), launched in 2016.

“The Germans occasionally update their criteria for receiving support, but this information is disseminated inefficiently and doesn’t always reach its target audience. It used to be that the Finance Ministry didn’t want the relevant information to get out. People didn’t know what was due to them, for example that their children were eligible for free tuition. There was a shocking lack of knowledge, although things began to improve about 8 years ago.”

Still a lot to be done

Silberman points to a change in attitude during Yair Lapid’s tenure (2013-2014) as finance minister.

“He was the first politician to take the matter seriously and make a real difference,” she says. “I would meet with his representatives and tell them about specific issues such as ambiguous criteria, unclear rights or support application forms that were too complicated for Holocaust survivors to fill – and for the first time felt I was being listened to. Most of our recommendations were adopted.

“After Lapid, successive ministers have been sympathetic and enacted more laws to help the Holocaust survivors. It’s not true that Israel mistreats its Holocaust survivors, as some hostile media say. I don’t accept this criticism – it used to be true, but no longer. The original [German] reparations money went toward establishing the country. Israel has enlarged its renta, while the Germans have not.”

So why is Aviv for Holocaust Survivors still needed?

“When we established Aviv, I thought eight to 10 years would suffice, but there’s still a lot of work to be done. The issue remains actual and significant. The situation has improved vastly – but there’s always more to do. If someone is in a deteriorating situation due to dementia, for example, they have to file a request for support, and these things cannot be granted automatically. We need volunteers to help them. Our legal team accompanies the process without charge.

“Also, there have been amendments in Germany to the Ghetto Pensions law,” she adds excitedly, “under which all those who were employed in ghettos are eligible for retroactive reimbursement, which could be tens of thousands of euros. One former ghetto resident we helped was granted 208,000 euros retroactively. The regulations are changing all the time, and the list of ghettos has expanded dramatically as have the financial rights of many Holocaust survivors. In July 2019, another 50 ghettos in Romania and Bulgaria were recognized. Until a few years ago, 99% of such requests were turned town, until one German local judge took up the issue.”

She no longer serves as CEO as others have taken up the leg-work. “The amuta has expanded with more activities and staff, and now has an excellent professional CEO [Orly Sivan]. I feel like my baby has grown – it used to be like one family,” she says.

In its 15 years of activity, Aviv for Holocaust Survivors has helped over 70,000 survivors realize rights worth some NIS 600 million. Last year the organization assisted 9,221 survivors, who eventually received benefits worth NIS 92,285,000. According to official statistics, about 161,000 Holocaust survivors currently live in Israel, about a quarter of them in poverty, and a third live alone. Their average age is 85 and a half.

“Looking back, we did much more than I expected,” says Silberman. “One of the reasons is that we insisted on only the best people to work with us – many attorneys passed through the amuta but didn’t meet our needs. For this role, beyond legal prowess, you have to be a mensch.”

Looking after the young generation

The Silbermans live in Moshav Nehalim, a national religious community just south of Petah Tikva. They have six children: a married pilot, 28; a married law student, 26; an officer in the IDF Armored Corps, 22; an 18-year-old daughter doing national service; a son, 17; and daughter, 12. They moved to the leafy moshav 17 years ago, “so that our children would have quality of life. There’s a community feeling here.”

But now the house is slowly emptying. “I’m waiting for grandchildren.”

Not that she has any intention of resting on her laurels. “The social field is important to me. Nowadays, I’m very busy with the Koltura project (https://koltura.co.il/), a sort of incubator for Jewish-Israeli cultural activities for young men and women seeking a connection to their roots, which runs multiple activities. Western culture has taken over, and we want to connect them to Judaism and Israeliness, to the sources. This takes up most of my time nowadays.

“I used to look after the previous generation; now in my 50s, I’m looking after the young generation. I like the new challenges, and it’s clear to me that I’ll be involved in more social activities. New immigrants are another sphere that interests me – after all, I used to be one myself.” ■