On the streets of Jerusalem, their plight is well chronicled, and even debated in the corridors of power in the Knesset. It is a well-told story across Eastern Europe and in the former Soviet Union, too, where a frayed social safety net affords little protection.
But here in New York, probably the world’s wealthiest Jewish community, the story of needy Holocaust survivors exists beyond the media’s glare. The overall level of Jewish poverty here — exacerbated by the economic downturn — has come into much sharper relief of late in the wider Jewish community. Soup kitchens have opened, UJA-Federation has launched a major recession-fighting initiative and reports have trumpeted unprecedented numbers of Jews living a paycheck or two from financial ruin.
Yet the plight of Shoah survivors — most of them in Brooklyn — struggling to eke out an existence remains stubbornly out of view. “It is a totally unknown problem,” says Louise Greilsheimer, senior vice president for agency and external relations at UJA-Federation.
And it takes on a fresh urgency this time of year as Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day (April 11), nears and survivors like Jacob tell their story. A 78-year-old native of a Slovakian village who fled to Budapest and found refuge in a protected Jewish House. Jacob came here after several post-liberation years in Israel, where he fought in the Israeli army in the War of Independence, then found jobs doing physical labor at an oil refinery and in the Israeli Merchant Marine.
Today he lives alone in a small, efficiency apartment on the Upper West Side, existing mostly off Social Security payments.
Jacob and others like him are, in a sense, victims three times over — first of the Nazi killing machine; then of a reparations process their advocates say is woefully inadequate to meet their needs; and finally of a cruel yet hard-to-shake stereotype of the “successful” survivor, the self-made millionaire who came here penniless and now is a prominent contributor to Jewish causes.
“Here, they think every Holocaust survivor is [rich],” says Jacob. “They think everyone is Elie Wiesel,” a world traveling, politically connected spokesman for the survivor generation.
Yet several recent developments could spell some measure of relief for survivors like Jacob.
- Officials from the Conference on Material Jewish Claims against Germany last month conducted negotiations with German officials to increase the government’s restitution payments in recognition of survivors’ increased economic needs.
- Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R–Fla.), ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Rep. Robert Wexler (D–Fla.) have re-introduced legislation that would compel insurance companies doing business in the United States to disclose Holocaust-era insurance policies and allow survivors and heirs of victims to bring action in U.S. courts to settle claims.
- A Northwestern University law professor has filed suit in federal court in Chicago seeking class-action status for the heirs on behalf of Hungarian survivors and their heirs, charging Hungarian State Railways with “complicity in genocide” for the railways’ role in transporting doomed Jews to death camps.
The increased payments arranged by the Claims Conference, the central office for negotiating for indemnification payments and distributing the proceeds, may play the greatest role in ameliorating the survivors’ situation, experts say.
“The negotiations ... resulted in 55 million euros (approximately $77 million) for homecare and social services in 2010, a significant increase over the 30 million euros obtained for 2009,” a Claims Conference announcement stated. The funds are part of a total of 91 million euros ($125 million) negotiated by the Claims Conference “for homecare and additional pensions for elderly, needy Jewish victims around the world.
“The Claims Conference has been pressing Germany in recent years to provide funds so survivors may receive the assistance they need to remain in their homes, a matter of great importance to many,” the announcement stated.
Says Gregory Schneider, executive vice president of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims against Germany: “This will have a huge impact [on the] number of hours of homecare we can provide. At the same time, obviously we are not alleviating poverty or health issues for survivors, but we will be able to make a significant difference in their quality of life.”
The numbers tell a grim story: One-fourth of the estimated 90,000 survivors in the U.S. live below the poverty level, a recent Jewish population study showed. The figure in New York’s five boroughs may be as high as one-half, according to various studies. (A recent report found that one in three Israeli survivors live in poverty.)
According to the Associated Press, as of August 2008, 51 percent of the New York metropolitan area’s 41,000 survivors live below 150 percent of the federal poverty guidelines (less than $1,285 per month).
And while the number of Holocaust survivors decreases each day (a 2002 UJA-Federation study put the number at 55,000 in the eight-county metropolitan area), the financial burden on the agencies that care from them increases. “It’s counterintuitive,” says the Claims Conference’s Schneider. “The need next month will be greater than the need today. The money will be depleted before the need ends.”
A new study by Selfhelp, a New York organization that provides services for Holocaust survivors, projects 19,000 survivors in Greater New York in 2025.
“The last generation of survivors is likely to have complex needs,” the study stated. “Fully 35 percent of survivors will be coping with serious or chronic illnesses, and 51 percent will be ‘very poor’ or near poor’ under Federal guidelines. In short, although the total survivor population is decreasing, the number of survivors who will require services will continue to grow as survivors age and begin to develop increasing frailty and other debilitating conditions.
“During their childhood and adolescence, this generation of survivors experienced long periods of malnutrition, direct physical assault, and exposure to severe weather conditions with poor clothing and footwear,” the study reported. “Their circumstances had a direct impact on their physical condition, leading to ailments such as brittle bones, stomach disorders, impaired vision, heart and circulation problems, high blood pressure, dental problems, and foot problems. Holocaust survivors, as a group, also have a high incidence of chronic depression, anxiety, and sleeping disorders.”
At the Jewish Community Council of Greater Coney Island, about two dozen survivors, most from the former Soviet Union, sit around a crowded conference table describing their lives, past and present. Many come to the JCC each day, for its meal programs and cultural activities and mostly to be around other people who share their background.
“Only a person who survived the Holocaust can understand” what they went through and how they feel, one man says.
“This center is for me a home,” says another man. “This is a miracle — we have everything here.”
“Nobody,” adds a woman, “comes to visit me” at home.
At the Jewish Community Council of Washington Heights-Inwood, a few elderly survivors tell similar stories. They too are alone in their apartments. They too come to the JCC every day.
“They take care of us,” Esfir Goldfarb says of the JCC staff.
Greilsheimer of UJA-Federation says many potential donors to UJA-Federation agencies express surprise when they learn that so many Holocaust survivors are still alive here or that so many are poor. Many falsely assume “a safety net” of government programs in place for the survivors, she says.
The prominent, wealthy survivors are, of course, a minority.
Many, say representatives of local agencies who work with Holocaust survivors, live in subsidized Section 8 housing, hoard food at synagogue kiddush meals and lead hand-to-mouth existences.
Many of the survivors are alone, their families murdered years ago in camps and ghettos, their spouses dying in recent decades, their adult children moving away. Many are in failing health. Many are in debt.
Many, say the poverty experts, have nothing left but pride — they are reluctant to apply for government benefits for which they qualify.
Most interviewed for this story asked that their full names not be used.
Almost no Holocaust survivors here are known to be homeless or begging on the streets, thanks to government benefits and support from a wide array of Jewish organizations. Theirs, instead, is a poverty of dashed dreams and reduced status.
Jacob, the Upper West Side resident, worked a succession of jobs after he came here from Israel, where he had served as “a plain soldier” in the army. But he is left today with no savings. To pass time, he reads magazines at Barnes & Noble and goes for walks in Central Park.
He lives on Social Security payments. A new shirt is a major expense, he says. A small monthly stipend from The Blue Card [a local organization that aids survivors] “makes a very big difference.”
“My life is not a bed of roses,” Jacob says. “I don’t complain,” he adds. “That’s life.”
While the story of Jacob and other survivors like him remain in the shadows, one Long Island eighth-grader is trying to bring it into the light.
A student at a Long Island day school and grandson of a Holocaust survivor, Joe Klein needed a topic for his thesis project last year.
His father, Harold, suggested the economic plight of aging survivors here, a topic he had recently learned about. Joe wasn’t interested, at first. “I had no idea” there were needy survivors in the New York area,” he says.
He did some research, discovered that thousands of survivors who live in the New York area are barely able to pay for necessities and presented his thesis proposal to his English teacher: a documentary film, like his older brother had done. She wasn’t interested, at first. “It’s too sad to be true,” she told Joe.
He did more research, persuaded his teacher, and the result was “Surviving Surviving,” a half-hour documentary that features interviews with local survivors and with experts on poverty in the survivor population.
When Klein screened his documentary for classmates at the Hebrew Academy of the Five Towns & Rockaway in Lawrence, the result was silence. And tears. The students also had not known that men and women who had survived the Final Solution were living in their midst as the poor or near poor. They were so moved that they collected nearly $700 immediately for the survivors.
What Klein remembers vividly about the interview process was how fresh the trauma of the Holocaust seemed to be to the survivors. Many broke into tears, as if the 1930s and ‘40s were yesterday.
Now a freshman at DRS Yeshiva High School in Woodmere, he is working to have “Surviving Surviving” shown at film festivals, synagogues and other Jewish organizations, to tell people about the situation of poor survivors.
“It’s a big problem,” he says.
Klein was honored at the recent dinner of the Union for Traditional Judaism, and he was named Best Young Filmmaker at the 2009 Queens International Film Festival.
“These people need help,” Klein says. “We have to do something about it.”
Resources For Survivors
Among the major agencies working on behalf of aging survivors are:
- The Conference on Material Jewish Claims against Germany ( 536-9100; claimscon.org) funds more than 100 Jewish organizations, primarily Jewish family and children’s service agencies, in more than 20 states.
In the last decade, the Claims Conference came under attack from survivors, who complained about its lack of transparency and accountability, and its funding of educational programs at the expense of survivors’ immediate needs. In response to the criticisms, the Claims Conference has changed many of its operating procedures, decreasing the amount of its annual grants to educational projects from 20 percent to about 13 percent.
- The Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty ( 453-9500; metcouncil.org) coordinates services for survivors provided by a local network of Jewish community councils and other agencies. These services include kosher food programs, minor home repairs, transportation and home care.
- The Blue Card ( 239-2251; bluecardfund.org) was founded to assist indigent refugees from Nazi Europe and now provides modest stipends to nearly 1,900 indigent survivors each month, 80 percent in the New York area.
- Selfhelp Community Services ( 735-1234; selfhelp.net) is the largest provider of services to survivors in North America, offering “enhanced case management services” for home health care, guardianship and financial management, and assistance accessing benefits and government entitlements.
- iVolunteer, ( 461-7748; ivolunteerny.com) coordinates a visitation-companionship program for survivors.
- The New York Legal Assistance Group (613-5000; nylag.org) has a Holocaust Compensation Assistance Program that helps survivors obtain legal information about various benefits.
- The Project for Holocaust Survivors of the Bikur Cholim of Boro Park ( 438-2020; i...@bikurcholimbp.com) has a special outreach to childless survivors.
- Project Dorot (769-2850; dorotusa.org) on the Upper West Side and Project Ezra (982-4124; projectezra.org) on the Lower East Side number several Holocaust survivors among their elderly clients.