Claims Conference, JDC help Shoah survivors who fell through the cracks

A grocery store's impersonal space is not normally conducive to intimate revelations. But here last week, normal social conventions were not in play.

shoah survivors 248 88 (photo credit: Matthew Wagner)
shoah survivors 248 88
(photo credit: Matthew Wagner)
Standing among canned foods and paper goods with Muzak playing in the background, Fenia Shusterman, a Ukrainian Jew, shared painful memories from the Second World War with an Israeli camera crew as her friends, fellow war survivors, looked on sorrowfully. A grocery store's impersonal space is not normally conducive to intimate revelations. But at a branch of the Pik grocery store chain here last week, normal social conventions were not in play. Shusterman told how she and her siblings were placed in an orphanage while their parents went off to fight in the Red Army. Her mother, a nurse, returned with an amputated leg and her father was also seriously wounded. Another woman told how her father, whom she described as "visibly Jewish," was shot dead before her eyes by a Nazi soldier. The woman, whose mother was not a Jew, was spared, she said, because she did not look Jewish. More testimonies were offered with the encouragement of a camera crew and other Israeli journalists, including The Jerusalem Post. These reporters were brought to Ukraine by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany to report on some of the programs it offers Ukrainian Jews. The Claims Conference and the Joint Distribution Committee, which is funded by American Jews, are the only two bodies that provide basic support, such as food, medicine and winter heating, for Jews in the FSU. Local Jewish businessmen prefer to give for "sexier" projects such as buildings, which provide concrete testimony to the righteousness of the donors. Although all the women in Shusterman's group survived WWII, were considered Jews according by the Nazis, and are eligible for Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return, none of them can be considered a survivor according to the criteria for Holocaust reparations. These women were never in a concentration camp, nor did they serve in forced labor camps or live in a ghetto. As a consequence, they fell through the cracks in the framework of German reparations. Nevertheless, they suffered horribly during the war. And they are either Jews or have tied their destiny to the Jewish people. Today many of these women, whose only income comes from Ukrainian state pensions, live under the poverty line, which is $100 a month in Ukraine. In response, the Claims Conference and the JDC have set up an aid network to provide clothing, winter relief and home care. The conference uses the proceeds from the sale of unclaimed Jewish real estate assets in the former East Germany to fund assistance programs. The JDC runs the programs. In Dnepropetrovsk, more than 5,000 men and women, both Holocaust survivors who were in concentration camps, forced labor or ghettos, and people like Shusterman and her friends are given a grocery credit card to buy whatever they want in any Pik grocery store. They received $740,000 during the first year the system was implemented. The amount provided by the Claims Conference depends on the size of the cardholder's pension: The higher the pension, the lower the aid. Shauli Dritter, a Sabra who is JDC county director for northern and eastern Ukraine and Siberia, first thought of using the grocery card system. "I could not bear to see these elderly men and women waiting in line during the winter for food packages," said Dritter. "They remind me of my own parents, who are both Holocaust survivors." Dritter said the cards solved an additional problem. Many who received food packages were dissatisfied with what they contained. They wanted to choose on their own. "Besides, going out to the grocery store can be a social event," said Dritter. "These women do their hair, put on lipstick and get spruced up to go shopping. It is a high point in their day."