by Thomas Siurkus
On June 7th the U.S. House of Representatives unanimously approved a resolution urging the German government to “reaffirm its commitment” to Holocaust survivors in their final years, and “address the unique health and welfare needs of vulnerable Holocaust victims, including home care and other medically prescribed needs.”
“Germany needs to show its leadership and do the right thing by fulfilling its commitments and obligations to all survivors by taking action to provide mental health, medical and home care needs for all survivors directly and immediately,” said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), who introduced the resolution, in a statement. “Time is of the essence and survivors can no longer afford these delays—they deserve to live out the remainder of their days in the dignity and comfort they deserve.”
The five-page-long-resolution, co-sponsored by Ted Deutch (D-FL), reminds the German government of the crimes of the Nazi era and of the words of its leaders, from Adenauer (the first chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany) to Angela Merkel, both of whom have acknowledged a responsibility to compensate the victims. It was introduced two days before President Barack Obama´s visit to Germany and two days after Yom HaShoah.
A 2012 study by the United Jewish Appeal-Federation (UJA) of New York showed that 52 percent of the Holocaust survivors in the New York City metropolitan area are living below 150 percent of the federal poverty level, a percentage that is likely to increase. Out of the approximately 100,000 Holocaust survivors living in the United States today, more than 50,000 live in the Big Apple. Many of them get support from the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, known as the Claims Conference, which distributes money to Holocaust survivors worldwide.
Greg Schneider, executive vice president of the Claims Conference, singles out two groups. “The first wave of survivors came immediately after the war,” he says. “They came with nothing and suffered unimaginable losses, physical and emotional, in most cases having all of their families and communities killed. These people were deprived of education. They did not have a chance to build skills that would help them later in life due to their imprisonment.” Schneider is surprised that the poverty rate among this group is not much higher. “The resilience of these people to overcome such obstacles is really tremendous.”
Another group of survivors worries him more: Russians who immigrated to the United States beginning in the late 1970s, who he says experience the highest rates of poverty. “There are many factors that result in this high rate. First of all, they came from a Communist country, and when they came to the U.S., they were already in their 60s and 70s. They didn’t speak the language and were not able to accumulate any wealth. The survivors hadn’t lived here and hadn’t paid into the social security system. The really tremendous poverty is amongst that group,” Schneider says.
But HR129 is just one measure to address a large-scale problem. According to the Claims Conference, most of this latter group of immigrants are not entitled to a pension, but to a one-time payment of $2,500 from the Claims Conference, because they fled before (or shortly after the start of) the Nazi occupation. These survivors are entitled to some government benefits, such Supplemental Security Income (SSI). But these cover only the most basic needs. To attempt to fill the gaps, there is also a series of specific benefits for Holocaust survivors that the Claims Conference funds through agencies like The Blue Card.
The Blue Card—named for the cards given to donors—was originally founded in 1934 by the Jewish community in Germany to help oppressed Jews that lost their jobs or had to close their business due to Nazi restrictions. The organization was reestablished in the United States in 1939 to aid refugees of Nazi persecution to resettle in America. Nowadays, the agency provides financial assistance to Holocaust survivors living in poverty in the United States.
The Blue Card depends on donations and payments by the Claims Conference. “The situation is very dire,” says Masha Pearl, executive director of The Blue Card. The agency, which currently supports more than 2,400 American households with medical care, rent subsidies and food, steps in when other agencies can no longer provide financial assistance. “We are the agency of last resort,” Pearl says.
According to the UJA study, approximately 46,000 of the 56,000 Holocaust survivors in New York are 75 or older. An estimated 35 percent are coping with serious or chronic illness, and 41 percent require help with daily tasks.
The funding is “not sufficient with the increasing costs for Holocaust survivors,” Pearl says. “We have many more needs and requests than we can fulfill”—not to mention the many survivors that do not seek help out of shame. Some try to live on their own, until it becomes impossible. When they turn to Holocaust survivor organizations for help, they often come with damaged teeth and other health issues from years of mistreatment and neglect. “Once I talked to a survivor and she told me, ‘Masha, I feel that I’ve failed twice in my life. Once when my family members in Auschwitz were taken to the gas chambers and I survived. I feel guilty about that. Now when I’m not able to make a life for myself anymore, I’m reliant on support because I cannot make my ends meet and I’m doing things that I don’t feel I should do,’” Pearl says—things like eating canned food because it lasts longer, or even eating spoiled food.
There have been efforts to address this need. For the first time, the New York City Council has allocated $1.5 million to Holocaust survivors in need in fiscal year 2016. And as of 2015, the German government has paid more than $80 billion in reparations. “We are trying to increase the funding as much as possible to meet the current need,” Schneider says. “Germany is distributing increased sums every year. But we are now in the process of documenting the needs which is far beyond our current allegation—we are making the case that we need even more money and we are in the process of these.”
But Schneider and others say other countries in Eastern Europe have their own responsibility to provide pensions and pass property restitution legislation. Schneider finds it “deplorable” that the Polish government, for example, has only recently broadened eligibility criteria for restitution. In 2009, 46 countries—including every Eastern European state except Serbia—signed the Terezin Declaration, which affirmed their commitment to enabling restitution legislation. But seven years later, not much has changed.