66 years later, state still unsure who to call a ‘survivor’

Lawmakers try to push legislation that will create official authority to maintain database, improve treatment of survivors before they pass away.

Holocaust Survivors 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Holocaust Survivors 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Sixty-six years after the fall of the Third Reich, the State of Israel still has no comprehensive database to identify who suffered through the Holocaust and still struggles to clarify exactly who is a survivor, The Jerusalem Post heard on Sunday.
Efforts have been undertaken in recent months by lawmakers and non-profit organizations to create a single official authority to improve the treatment of survivors as they live out their final years, in the hopes of seeing this remedied before it’s too late.
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There is a list of those who are dead but no list of those who are still alive, said MK Ze’ev Bielski (Kadima), a member of the Knesset’s Joint Committee for the Budget of the Company for Restitution of Holocaust Victims Assets.
Every day, between 35 and 40 survivors die, and no one has any idea who these people are, he said.
Bielski, himself the son of Holocaust survivors who grew up in Ra’anana with no grandparents, is in the process of pushing through legislation that will make it compulsory for the government to establish such a national authority that will, among other tasks, create a database of Holocaust survivors and coordinate the activities of more than 15 government and non-government organizations currently providing financial aid and services to an estimated 208,000 survivors living in Israel.
“I just hope this law will pass soon so that all these people have a 911 [emergency] number for them to call when they need help,” said Bielski, describing how he has been approached by a growing number of survivors who have no idea how to navigate the bureaucracy in order to understand and obtain the basic benefits owing to them.
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Currently, there are four Holocaust survivor compensation funds – two from Germany, administered by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, and two operated by the Israeli government’s Holocaust Survivors Rights Authority – that provide monthly pensions to certain survivors based on specific criteria.
In addition, there are health benefits and housing rights that all survivors can apply for, with each benefit supplied by a different authority, including the Ministries of Health, Welfare, Housing and Pensioners Affairs, and the National Insurance Institute.
“Everyone seems to be doing something, but still there are thousands of survivors who fall through the cracks because no one works together and no one knows exactly who the survivors are,” Bielski said.
He is not the first to pick up on the lack of coordination among all these organizations; this was one of the main points highlighted in a report prepared by Ministry of Welfare and Social Services director-general Nahum Itzkovitz in 2007.
Four years later, at his urging, 15 government and non-government organizations working with survivors came together for the first time ever to discuss ways to cooperate.
“The situation is very complicated,” Itzkovitz told the Post on Sunday. “There are so many groups focusing on a specific areas, and it’s hard to get them to agree on anything.”
Creating a database of names, however, “is not such a big problem,” he said.
Boaz Arad, a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute of Market Studies, who last December published an indepth study on the status of Holocaust survivors in Israel, said that recent legislation passed aimed at providing all survivors with additional health benefits via the four health funds should make compiling a such a database fairly straight forward.
“If Yad Vashem is the body appointed to create a list of those who died, then the government should also create a “Yad,” or memorial institution, to find all the survivors here and make sure that we know who they are,” said Arad, pointing out that even recent reports from the Central Bureau of Statistics, the Health Ministry and others only “estimate the number of Holocaust survivors still alive.”
“They are only statistics, numbers, and not about the actual people,” he said. “We need to create this list before it’s too late.”
Natan Levon, director of the non-profit pensioners rights group Ken Lazaken, which is working with Bielski to draft the legislation, said, however, that the problem would not be solved just by creating a list of survivors in the country, but would also require recognizing all victims of Nazi persecution as survivors.
He said that about 25,000 of the 208,000 survivors are not officially recognized by the state as survivors – mostly those who arrived here in the 1990s from the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe – and therefore not eligible for an additional monthly pension from either Israeli sources or from Germany under the reparation agreements.
“There needs to be one body and one law that will recognize all those who are survivors and let everyone live out their final years in dignity,” said Levon, whose organization launched a campaign this week calling on the government to “provide all Holocaust survivors with a state pension now, before there are no survivors left.”