The statistics are grim: A quarter of Holocaust survivors in Israel and a third of those in the U.S. are living in poverty. These now-elderly people, who experienced some of the worst traumas in modern times, are subsisting on so little they can’t afford both food and medicine, or dental treatment, or house repairs, or to replace a broken appliance. Many are childless; many are the last remnant of their extended families, with no support network to advocate for them in their twilight years.
According to attorney Aviva Silberman, founder of Aviv for Holocaust Survivors, an organization that helps survivors apply for special benefits, thousands of Holocaust survivors fail to take advantage of the compensation that’s legally coming to them. “They simply don’t know about the benefits and what they’re entitled to, what forms to fill out, how to fill them out or where to submit them,” she said.
There are several reparation payment or allowance programs available to survivors living around the world; however, deciphering the fine print as to who is eligible for which payment, which forms need to be completed and what supporting documents must be provided for each can be overwhelming.
Aviv for Holocaust Survivors was founded in 2007 with the goal of helping Holocaust survivors access the benefits available to them. In its 13 years of operation, with the help of five lawyers and hundreds of volunteers, Aviv has helped 65,000 survivors actualize their rights and access more than $1.2 million in payments and allowances completely free of charge.
No Longer Reluctant
Silberman explains the roots of this rampant poverty: “Due to their wartime experiences, some survivors continued to suffer psychological and physical problems that hindered their ability to work. This pattern has also carried over to the next generation.”
In the past, many people opted not to accept money from Germany, irrespective of their financial situation, observed Silberman. “Today, however, survivors realize that they are not helping anyone by refusing the money, and that at their stage of life, they certainly deserve to enjoy a higher standard of living.”
In addition to not knowing how to go about accessing payments and reparations, Silberman says that survivors are often fearful that by applying for additional benefits they will lose what they already have. In reality, however, about half the survivors who are assisted by Aviv are, in fact, eligible for more than they are currently receiving. “We encourage survivors to inquire about their benefits. In many cases, what they were told several years ago about not being entitled has changed.”
A case in point, and one that affects thousands of survivors globally, is the new law, from July 2019, recognizing 20 Romanian cities as being ghettos. The significance of the revised legislation cannot be overstated: Survivors from Romania who previously were not eligible for any of the German rentas or pensions are now eligible for various grants and monthly allowances.
Leah, a survivor from Ramnicu Sarat, Romania, had previously fallen between the cracks in terms of receiving any financial aid, due to various technical and bureaucratic reasons. With the help of Aviv’s attorney Yael Gertler, she was able to receive a lump sum of $2,800 as well as a monthly allowance of $1,100. “Finally, at the age of 89, I’m finally recognized as a Holocaust survivor!” Leah said excitedly. “For decades, Germany never acknowledged the suffering we endured in Romania. I’m gratified that I am still alive to see Germany taking responsibility for what they did to us!”
Daunting Red Tape
Holocaust survivors and their children are often daunted by the seemingly endless paperwork and complex bureaucracy associated with applying for compensation. Working for 13 years with a team of professional lawyers, Aviv for Holocaust Survivors is uniquely positioned to assist survivors receive what is coming to them, thereby improving their quality of life immeasurably.
Gila, an 84-year-old survivor from Bulgaria, suffers various ailments along with dementia. For many years, she received a $700 monthly reparations allowance. In view of her mother’s degenerating state, Gila’s daughter Ronit requested an increased stipend from the government, but was turned down because they said Gila did not meet the necessary criteria. It never occurred to Ronit to try again, until she spoke to Linda Levy, one of Aviv’s consultants, who investigated the case and discovered that Gila had spent the war years in the ghetto in Sophia. Familiar with the updated rights due Holocaust survivors, she applied to various agencies including the Israeli Treasury and the German government. The applications were approved, and Gila began to receive $2,000 monthly from the Israeli government, as well as a lump sum of $16,700 and another $90 monthly allowance from Germany. Thanks to the extra income, Ronit can now afford to give her mother the best care available including costly treatments to ease her health issues.
The Poor Partisan
Without doubt, it takes patience and tenacity to overcome bureaucratic hurdles. In cases where individuals would give up, Aviv’s professionals are armed with the knowledge and persistence necessary for a positive outcome. Avigdor is a survivor from Poland who lives in Kiryat Ata. After learning that the Polish government was distributing a monthly reparations payment of $110, he traveled to the Entitlement Center in Haifa. Aviv’s attorney Adi Keselman realized that notwithstanding the allowance from Poland, Avigdor was also eligible to have his monthly survivor’s allowance doubled. In conversation with Avigdor, she learned that he had fought in the Polish countryside with the partisans, and so she applied for an additional monthly stipend of $700 for war veterans who fought against the Nazis. After much back and forth, necessitating several home visits on the part of Aviv’s volunteers, their efforts paid off. Today, at 94, Avigdor receives a sizable monthly sum that allows him to live out his days in comfort and security.
In the War in Utero
One of the more unexpected criteria for eligibility is “one who was a fetus at the time their mother suffered persecution by the Nazis.” Henia Klatsch, a survivor from Haifa, was born just two months after the end of World War II. Her parents had survived the Holocaust by hiding together with their two children in the home of a Polish family. Henia grew up with parents and siblings who emerged from the war alive in body, but severely scarred emotionally. After a turbulent childhood, Henia married Aryeh, also a Holocaust survivor.
A chance visit to the Aviv Entitlement Center in Haifa proved to be life-changing for the Klatsches. Attorney Liora Zamir informed Henia that she might be eligible for Holocaust reparations due to her having been an unborn baby while her mother suffered persecution, and thus began a protracted bureaucratic process that included procuring several hard-to-get documents. “I wanted to give up a hundred times over, but Liora never let me,” Henia shared, speaking with emotion. “She fought like a lioness on my behalf! It’s only thanks to her caring, and her professional, devoted service that my application was eventually approved.”
The couple, which had previously subsisted only on Aryeh’s reparations, received a substantial financial boost. “A stone has been lifted from my heart,” Henia said. “I never had a childhood, but no one acknowledged my suffering before. This allowance is helping us make ends meet, and now I can even give something to our grandchildren, something that had not been possible before.”
Poverty of Spirit
Often, the consequence of the severe trauma suffered during the war years is a lack of mental stability, which renders the survivor’s situation all the more tragic. Ari, 84, made aliyah from France in 2010, alone and destitute. His childhood years had been spent in hiding, which enabled him to survive physically, but left deep emotional scars. Ari’s mental state and general situation deteriorated steadily, to the point where he was homeless. If not for some kind people who provided him with shelter at night, he would have literally slept out in the street. At one point, Ari’s cousin sent him to the Entitlement Center in Tel Aviv, operated in cooperation with the Jewish Federation of Los Angeles. Aviv’s attorney David Neuhoff was particularly moved by Aryeh’s predicament, and devoted himself wholeheartedly to his case. The outcome was better than anyone could have anticipated: Ari was placed in an assisted living facility in Kiryat Yam, and today, with a monthly allowance of $2,400, he is able to live in dignity and comfort.
For more information visit www.avivshoa.co.il.
By Sharon Gelbach