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For Many Holocaust Survivors, a Final Struggle

When Louise’s husband and daughter died of cancer within a span of 15 years, Louise was left alone, wheelchair-bound in a small walk-up apartment in Queens, New York. Today she has no family she can rely on. She can barely afford food, medicine and clothes, and has trouble coming up with enough money to pay her rent.

“Everything went downhill” for Louise “after she lost her child,” said Susan Tsveer, a social worker for crisis intervention at the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty in New York. “She had money left after her husband's death, but she had many expenses caring for her daughter.”

Despite weekly visits from a caseworker, regular phone calls with Tsveer, and donations of food and clothing from the local poverty council, Louise, 89, struggles in relative isolation. “We unfortunately don’t have the manpower to go out to all of our clients,” Tsveer said.

Louise’s plight is tragic enough, but it is amplified by the fact that 60 years ago she escaped death at the hands of the Nazis in Hungary.

Now Louise and tens of thousands of other Holocaust survivors around the world are quietly approaching the end of their lives. Experts predict that none will be left in 20 years. Many live in poverty or near poverty, despite the existence of hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation funds from a variety of sources. How to allocate and distribute these restitution funds has been the object of heated debate for decades. But the conversation has reached a new level of urgency in recent months, providing a glimmer of hope for many survivors and their advocates.

Over the summer, hundreds of outraged demonstrators marched outside the prime minister’s residence in Israel, the country that’s home to the largest number of Holocaust survivors. The protesters demanded greater benefits for Holocaust victims, after the government offered what was considered a paltry addition of $20 to their monthly stipends.

Recent class action lawsuits and court appeals in the United States have also brought the issue of survivors’ benefits to the forefront.

“The idea of survivors’ needs and the failure of the community to address them is in the air,” said Thane Rosenbaum, a New York law professor, novelist and son of Holocaust survivors who has been a vocal advocate for needy survivors. “Now the question is, What’s next?”

The issue is complicated by disagreements over where the need is greatest.

There are an estimated 850,000 Holocaust survivors worldwide. Roughly 175,000 victims of the Nazis live in the United States, which has the third-largest survivor population in the world, after Israel and the former Soviet Union, according to Ira Sheskin, director of the Jewish Demography Project at the University of Miami. In the United States, nearly 45,000 of these survivors live below the federally established poverty level, and an additional 40,000 live on “very modest incomes,” according to Sheskin.

Most survivors are in their late 80s, and many cannot afford proper medicine or care. Some still suffer from the trauma of their wartime experiences, and according to social workers, the horror of the attacks on 9/11 brought back the raw emotion of the Holocaust, severely affecting their health and stability.

“Certainly no survivor should be suffering this way,” said Sam Dubbin, a partner in the firm Dubbin & Kravetz of Miami, who is currently representing American survivors of the Holocaust in trial and appellate courts. “They were abandoned by humanity. The Jewish world failed the victims of the Holocaust.”

Dubbin argues that Holocaust survivors have not been empowered or involved in discussions about how the money awarded to them should be spent. He says he was approached in the mid-1990s by a group of survivors in Miami who were concerned about how a pending $1.25 billion settlement with Swiss banks would be distributed.

“Over the years, survivors’ rights were decided by other people. The individuals themselves never sat in the table,” Dubbin said. “They feared they'd be shut out again.”

Dubbin decided to take the case and has been representing survivors ever since. In the process, he has become a fierce critic of the Jewish organizations that oversee Holocaust-restitution funds.

On Oct. 2, at Dubbin’s request, a federal appeals court in New York reopened the settlement of a class action suit over unpaid life-insurance claims by Holocaust victims against Assicurazioni Generali of Italy, one of the world’s largest insurers. A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit in New York City ordered that a new hearing on the fairness of the settlement be held by Jan. 7.

Dubbin and others have also strongly condemned the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, a group of 23 major national and international Jewish organizations that negotiated a landmark reparations agreement with West Germany in 1952. Since then, the organization, known as the Claims Conference, has taken the lead in negotiating and administering new funds earmarked for Holocaust survivors from a variety of sources, including now-reunified Germany, the United States and Swiss banks.

Through the efforts of the Claims Conference and its relatively small staff, more than 500,000 survivors have received more than $60 billion in payments. Nevertheless, the organization has always been a ripe target.

Soon after it reached its first agreement with Germany in 1952, the Claims Conference decided to devote a fraction of its funds to Holocaust research and education, with the balance going toward social services for survivors. That has been a source of controversy every since.

“We’ve had many, many open and lengthy discussions, including many survivors on the board, who have voted to preserve the memory of those who perished,” said Hillary Kessler-Godin, the communications director of the Claims Conference, adding that the board believes it has an “obligation to perpetuate their memory.”

But others argue that the Claims Conference has no business spending money on education as long as Holocaust victims are in need. In August, the Claims Conference announced that “following a review of survivors’ income and needs,” its board of directors had decided to divert an additional $67 million over the next three years from education and research to social-welfare programs benefiting victims of the Nazis.

Kessler-Godin denied that the change was made as a result of outside pressure. “The board of directors reviewed the number after a lengthy discussion of survivor needs,” she said.

But critics still wonder if it is enough. They also object to the fact that the bulk of the proceeds of the $1.25 billion settlement reached in 1991 between Holocaust survivors and Swiss banks was allocated to victims in the former Soviet Union while only 4 percent of the funds went to American survivors. Federal District Judge Edward R. Korman, who presided over distribution of the settlement, said he based his decision on the fact that survivors in the former Soviet Union did not have access to social-welfare benefits like Social Security and Medicare.

Whatever the outcome of the debate, one thing is clear: As Holocaust survivors continue to age, their needs will only swell.

The number of impoverished survivors “is mind-boggling,” said Tsveer, the New York social worker. “I look at their age, and they’ve really lived their lives and have been through that struggle, and they came here and they continue to struggle and struggle and struggle.”

E-mail: kbs2119@columbia.edu