Survivors demand more financial aid from Germany

It is hard to argue with Holocaust survivors who say they have lost their pride and do not appreciate the public's rebuke.

Steinbrueck 224 88 (photo credit: AP)
Steinbrueck 224 88
(photo credit: AP)
It is hard to argue with Holocaust survivors who say they have lost their pride and do not appreciate the public's rebuke. Each conversation with those who were there - at the ghettos, the concentration and extermination camps - starts with a long review of the history of the reparations agreement Israel reached with Germany, and ends in a frustrated tone. "Every now and then I think of my family, which was a middle-class family; the house, the pictures the diamond jewelry and the land. They stole everything from us; they took a thousand times more than they paid back," Uri Hanoch told The Jerusalem Post. Hanoch is a Holocaust survivor and the chairman of the organization for the survivors of Dachau, the first concentration camp built by the Nazis in Germany in 1933. "It is not our fault that the state reached a bad agreement with the German government. We refuse to take free invitations and hospitality, but we demand what is ours, and we refuse to be reprimanded by those who weren't there," Hanoch added. Newly-appointed Minister of Jerusalem Affairs Rafi Eitan caused a public storm among taxpayers a few weeks ago when he suggested reopening the reparations agreement signed in 1953, according to which Germany compensated Israel $750 million in goods and services for the absorption of the survivors and for the struggling young state. Eitan's associates insisted last week that he had never asked to reopen the agreement, but to establish a German-Israeli work team that would examine how Germany could help the financially struggling survivors. The explanation did not help, and soon claims arose - particularly among Israelis - that the Jews were still schnorrers, trying to milk the Germans on the basis of historical events and guilt. "There is always room to demand more money from Germany because of its historical responsibility, but we need to think whether it's not too late, and I think it is," said Prof. Moshe Zimmermann, head of the Institute for German History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. "We are asking money from the wrong Germans. The responsible ones passed away, and we shouldn't visit the sins of the fathers on the grandsons and great-grandsons. He who sinned should have been punished, and I believe we missed that boat." According to Zimmermann, this initiative, which made the headlines two weeks after the government had approved an additional and significant budget for the poor Holocaust survivors and the needy elderly, was nothing but another of Eitan's political tricks. "This publicity stunt was meant to improve Eitan's damaged image among the members of the Pensioners Party and to make him look like a hero who fought not just against the government of Israel for senior citizens, but also against the Nazis," Zimmermann said. Eitan's associates said last week that the government had sent him to pave the way for a future request to the German government on the subject. However, they said, Eitan had decided to keep his silence after Thomas Steg, a spokesman for German Chancellor Angela Merkel, said his government would address the issue only after the Israeli government made a formal request. "An Israeli minister turning to the German government is not formal enough?" asked one of Eitan's associates last week, shortly after they learned that German Finance Minister Peer Steinbrueck, who arrived in Israel on Thursday and had been scheduled to meet with Eitan, had cancelled the appointment. Instead, Steinbrueck visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem, then went to the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, where he was bestowed with an honorary fellowship. Before his trip to the IDC, he went to German Ambassador to Israel Harold Kinderman's house in Herzliya for a reception in his honor. Steinbrueck met with representatives of the Holocaust survivors' organizations in Israel at the ambassador's house and made it clear that the German government would not discuss reopening the reparation agreement. In what could be interpreted as an attempt to keep the door open, Steinbrueck promised the survivors' representatives that specific demands - such as medications or compensations for the children of the Budapest ghetto, who did not receive any compensation since they spent less than 18 months in the ghetto - would be examined by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims against Germany. "We can be flexible on survivors' demands... I cannot - and will not - try to dismiss their pleas with bureaucratic pretexts," Steinbrueck told Ynet on Friday. And still the general feeling among Israeli officials was that the Germans must address this ever-sensitive issue, making sure to do so with sensitivity. "During the 1950s, when the reparation agreement was on the agenda, it almost split the people of Israel. The government of the young state, headed by [former prime minister] David Ben-Gurion, needed the money, but the survivors who were trying to rebuild their lives and were busy repressing the horrible things that happened to them didn't want to have anything [to do] with the Germans. Nowadays, Germany defines its relationship with Israel as one of its supporting pillars, and it feels morally obligated to Israel," said an official at the Foreign Ministry. According to the official, the German government has been active in many forums for the benefit of Israel. Thus, it was the first to condemn Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's remarks against Israel, it strives to improve Israel's status among the members of the European Union, its representatives assist the negotiations for kidnapped soldiers, and it constantly donates money for Israeli education and for projects to maintain the relationship between the two countries. "However, when it comes to the survivors, they take extra precautions because they know it's still an open wound, and no formal functionary would dare to say something negative. On the other hand, it is important to understand that Eitan went to the Germans after he received [Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's] blessing. During her last visit to Israel, Chancellor Merkel met with Eitan and invited him to come to Germany, where she had appointed a special representative to address the issue, and in general, her attitude to the initiative was positive," the official said. He added that the current approach was to meet with the heads of the survivors' organizations, to learn their claims and only then to decide if another submission should be made to the German government. Nonetheless, Holocaust survivors believe that Israel provided Germany with a character reference when it agreed to sign the reparation agreement, and that without it, Germany would have not prospered as it is today. "I swear, I didn't think I would live to be 80 years old, but I am alive, and along with me many others whose maintenance costs a lot of money because they need more medical treatments, medications and surgeries. In addition, when the agreement was signed, no one knew that the walls of the former Soviet Union would fall down and that 200,000 more Holocaust survivors who escaped the Nazis to Eastern Europe would immigrate to Israel and would need financial help. Besides, through the years, Israel paid at least five times more than Germany paid for the Holocaust survivors' needs, and just recently it was obligated to channel an additional sum of NIS 300m. for the needy survivors in the next two years," Hanoch said, explaining why he felt the Germans should share the burden. But Germany has never stopped sharing the burden - it just limited, in the early 1990s, the number of groups with which it would negotiate to one umbrella organization, the Conference on Jewish Material Claims against Germany, whose representatives in Germany, Israel and New York have coordinated all Jewish demands for the past 15 years. The German government has paid a monthly "Renta," or pension, to the Holocaust survivors since 1953. In 1975, the number of Renta receivers worldwide reached a record of over 270,000 survivors. This number shrank naturally, and today it stands at 50,000 Renta receivers who get around 450-500 euro every month. Some 20,000 of these survivors live in Israel. In additional, some 25,000 survivors get monthly German "Clause 2 Fund" payments of 270 euro per month, under the 1992 law signed with the Jewish Claims Conference in the name of those who couldn't demand their compensation when the agreement was signed. Israel pays Holocaust compensation to a total of 51,000 Israelis. "We aren't schnorrers toward anyone. This is our moral right. Holocaust survivors who turn to Germany with problems they have as a result of the Holocaust, of being at the extermination and work camps, are entitled to assistance, just as a retired and wounded soldier is entitled to that help," said Noah Flug, chairman of the Center of Organizations of Holocaust Survivors, who was born in Lodz, Poland. Flug spent four years as a child in the Lodz ghetto and was the only member of his family who survived the concentration camps of Auschwitz, Gross-Rosen and Mauthausen. After his meeting with the German finance minister last week, Flug said the survivors did not feel disappointed. "He [Steinbrueck] said that Germany could not sign new agreements, but [that] it plans to fulfill all agreements that have been signed before. We had no illusions that this meeting would be able to solve anything, but it was important for us to make our voice heard," Flug said. Reuven Merhav, chairman of the Executive Committee at the Jewish Claims Conference, told The Jerusalem Post last week that he believed there was always room for negotiation with the German government, but that such negotiation had to be done via the Claims Conference. "The German system is a very organized and rational one, and if a plea is made in a backed-up and sensitive way, they will address it with the best of intentions," Merhav said.