The sands of time are running out

Some Holocaust survivors still face an uphill battle to receive compensation due to them.

Holocaust survivors from Pardes Hanna (photo credit: GIL ELIYAHU / JINIPIX)
Holocaust survivors from Pardes Hanna
(photo credit: GIL ELIYAHU / JINIPIX)
“THEY’RE JUST holding back until there’s no one left to deal with. I promise you that’s what it’s all about. At this rate, they won’t have to wait too much longer,” Holocaust survivor Gidon Lieber, a retired pilot, lamented at the weekly meeting of fellow survivors in Pardes Hanna, a quiet town south of Haifa.
The subject of delays in receiving payments, the sometimes insurmountable bureaucracy, and the disturbing reports highlighting many hundreds of millions of dollars of unallocated funds under the management of the New Yorkbased Claims Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany raised many a hackle among the gathering of elderly pensioners.
The Holocaust ended in May 1945; but for many of the survivors of the world’s worst man-made atrocity, the suffering still continues almost 70 years later. Time is running out to put right the injustice of so many survivors living without sufficient means to support themselves. Every day, an average of more than 30 die in Israel alone – a rate of more than one every hour. How can Israel, of all countries, a regional financial powerhouse, allow so many Holocaust survivors to die in poverty? It’s a troubling question that despite the best efforts of many hardworking organizations and charities has yet to be properly addressed by the powers that be, although, and albeit belatedly, some progress is being made.
“I care for my wife on my own” says one 83-year-old man, who like a number of those I met preferred not to give his name, seemingly concerned about repercussions. “They only grant me eight hours of home help a week.
That’s nothing when have you have to look after someone 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I’m getting older too.”
The average Holocaust survivor is now 85 years old, an age at which even those who have enjoyed a privileged life inevitably find themselves suffering mental and physical deterioration. Many of those who endured the Holocaust suffer health problems that have affected their capacity to provide for themselves in their old age, a situation that in Israel has led to one-third of survivors reportedly now living on or below the poverty line.
Almost all of those meeting at Pardes Hanna have been in Israel for 60 years or more. Many came straight from the concentration camps or soon after the establishment of the state in May 1948, began a new life, married, had children, worked all their adult life and have a pension to support them on top of the reparation payments given to Holocaust survivors. In general, they have a respectable standard of living, but this is not the case for everyone, even here in this relatively affluent community.
Ruth Lieberman was born in Kyrgyzstan in 1944, and is one of many Jews whose family fled Eastern Europe and kept going east until they found a safe haven. Her husband, Mikhail, 12 years her senior, came from the small town of Kurenets in Belarus and was only 10 years old when he witnessed his family being gunned down in front of him by Nazis in the Vilejka ghetto, where they had been confined together with other Jews from the area for over a year.
He fled the shooting and managed to escape before spending the subsequent two years living in the forests where he fought alongside the partisans until the war ended. It was only after the war that he found out that his elder brother had also survived the massacre, and together they moved to live in Minsk. In 1958, he moved to Poland, and then immigrated two years later to Israel, where he went on to raise a family and become a senior manager at one of the country’s leading military aviation companies.
“People like these [at the Pardes Hanna club] built this country,” Ruth tells The Jerusalem Report. “They fought in the Hagana, they started businesses, worked the land, provided for their families. The majority here receive compensation, but some are still fighting to get paid. One lady from Tunis is still waiting, even though her case was reviewed and she was told two years ago she was entitled to compensation.”
“On top of all the delays and the paperwork,” Gidon Lieber adds, “when survivors do get compensation, why do we have National Insurance deducted from our payments, and why do we receive notification of our payments in the form of a wage slip from the Finance Ministry? What’s really going on here?” he asks.
Many of those who arrived after 1953 have until now received the bare minimum pension payment of around 1,800 shekels ($520) a month, a sum that doesn’t even come close to covering expenses. Thus far, they have not been entitled to Holocaust survivor benefits from the government.
My visit to Pardes Hanna happened to coincide with an announcement by Finance Minster Yair Lapid of a fund of more than 300 million shekels ($86 million) in additional support for Holocaust survivors that will now include those who arrived after October 1953, and those who were in “open ghettos” and had previously been ruled out of receiving benefits. In a related decision, in February, the Knesset voted unanimously to expand the net of eligibility and allow a reported 18,500 additional survivors to receive an annual grant ($1,350) for survivors of Nazi atrocities.
“RIGHTING THIS wrong is a great historical moment,” Colette Avital of the Center of Organizations of Holocaust Survivors told Yedioth Ahronoth daily on the day news broke of the extension of benefits to those arriving after 1953. “The survivors were not to blame for not arriving sooner to Israel, and now they will receive the benefits they were naturally entitled to.”
Some months earlier, Lapid demonstrated more determination than many of his predecessors to try to improve the lot of Holocaust survivors (his father was a survivor) instructing that an annual stipend (around $525) previously paid out in vouchers for a variety of goods and services will now be paid directly into the survivors’ bank account in cash. Lapid also announced an additional NIS35 million ($10 million) for the medical treatment of survivors. It’s all progress in the right direction, but many believe it is too little too late. High medical costs and a significant rise in the cost of living in recent years mean that for many old and frail survivors, day-today living is growing even tougher as their limited funds fail to keep pace with mounting bills.
On top of the ongoing trauma of wartime experiences that still blight many lives, it is widely accepted that the constant battle to find even a few extra dollars to make ends meet impacts negatively on the already deteriorating health of these senior citizens. Commenting recently on efforts to improve the lot of Holocaust survivors, MK Haim Katz (Likud), chairman of the Knesset Labor, Welfare, and Health Committee, said the new payments were “helpful to the [Holocaust] survivor population, but are still minimal and not enough. Holocaust survivors need to be cared for and should receive all that they deserve, and not sparingly.”
What is patently clear is that many of those who migrated to Israel in the 1980s and 1990s from the former Soviet Union, who during their time under communism were denied access to the reparations paid out by Germany, are now those in most dire need. They make up a significant proportion of survivors living on or below the poverty line in Israel.
The Foundation for the Benefit of Holocaust Victims in Israel recently reported that some 193,000 survivors currently live in Israel. More than 60 percent of them have turned to the Foundation for help. It’s hard to believe that in a country with such a high cost of living more than two-thirds of survivors attempt to get by on less than NIS3,000 ($860) per month.
Many Holocaust survivors might be poor, but still have their pride, and feel it is demeaning to go cap-in-hand to different organizations for help, never mind having to face the baffling amount of claims forms and deal with different governmental departments.
“They treat us like the enemy” one woman at the Pardes Hanna meeting says of the Healthcare Committee. “It’s terrible. There are many people who don’t want to go through it.
I stuck with it and got a little extra, but it was an ordeal.” “It took me two years from the time I applied until I received payment,” another woman adds. “They did pay me in the end, but I had to spend 11,000 shekels in lawyer’s fees in order to succeed!” The other major gripe among the Pardes Hanna survivors was not with the German government, but with the scandal-riven Claims Conference, based in New York.
In August 2013, the German government agreed to pay an additional $1 billion to Holocaust survivors, spread out in payments between 2014 and 2017, money that will reportedly benefit some 56,000 people, a third of whom live in Israel. The deal was negotiated by the Claims Conference, the organization that has worked since the 1950s to gain restitution for survivors and been at the forefront of recovering assets and achieving payments from Germany.
IN RECENT years, however, the Claims Conference has been dogged by controversy.
In 2012, it came under the international media spotlight following a $57 million fraud, involving no less than 28 of its employees, three of whom were jailed. As far back as 2004, according to The Jewish Chronicle, an executive vice-president received an annual salary of more than $437,000; and the fact that the Claims Conference, according to its last annual financial statement (2012), was reportedly sitting on some $967 million in the bank – although its accounts suggest a proportion had already been allocated – has left a dark cloud hanging over the reputation of the organization.
Many suggest that such a huge sum of money could immediately ease the pain being suffered by survivors in Israel and around the world, before it’s too late.
Julius Berman, the Claims Conference chairman, has come in for much criticism, in particular in a damning May 2013 article in The Forward that alleged he had been alerted to the possibility of fraud in his organization some 10 years earlier. Despite the proven fraud and convictions of some of his employees, Berman rejects the allegations leveled at him, saying the charges are “a web of lies and distortions.”
Confidence in his ability to steady the Claims Conference ship was, however, reflected in Berman’s reelection as president last summer, an election that caused some associated with the Claims Conference to resign in protest.
Leaving aside the arguments and counterarguments over who’s right and who’s wrong in the Claims Conference affair, the stark reality at ground level is that many people who suffered the very worst of man’s inhumanity to man are still not receiving enough money to allow them to live the few years they have left with pride and dignity.
One frail old lady shuffled over to speak with me after the Pardes Hanna meeting and said simply in Hebrew, “I’ve no more strength left. I became weary a long time ago.”  
Paul Alster is an Israel-based journalist who can be followed on twitter @paul_alster and at