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For Shame -
Why Are Israeli Holocaust Survivors Going Hungry?

By: Larry Derfner
Photos: Jonathan Bloom

It is hard to believe there are Holocaust survivors living in poverty in Israel, but they are. Leopold Rosen's apartment in Holon doesn't look like that of a poor man, but this is mainly because his caregiver, who is paid for out of Rosen's old-age and Holocaust survivor's benefits, keeps the place sparkling and tidy. At 85, he walks around the apartment trailing tubes from his oxygen tent, which he stays hooked up to 17 hours a day. He's got TB from hiding from the Nazis in the Polish forest, a withered hand from a Nazi bullet, plus epilepsy, asthma and a pacemaker. Wheezing and fighting off frightening coughing spasms, he says with dry humor, "The only thing that still works is my brain."

He's not a man to be taken lightly, saying that he and others on the run killed a Jewish collaborator in the forest, and warning that he will do the same to anybody who tries to take away his TV set, which he thinks could happen because he is refusing, for the first time ever, to pay the annual public broadcasting fee.

A widower with two grown sons - "They can't help me," he says - Rosen lives on his NIS 2,100 Israeli old-age pension plus about NIS 700 a month in German reparations money. A painter before retirement, he blames the Israeli government over the generations for his economic predicament, which he describes frankly. "I don't have enough money for food," he says, but adds that this is not such a problem because he's used to hunger from his years in the forest where he "ate from the ground." He pays his bills because that's his first priority. It's hard to believe there are Holocaust survivors living in poverty in Israel, but there are. These are survivors in their 70s and 80s who eat lunch at soup kitchens and get their clothes from charity, or who have to choose between buying groceries for a decent meal and buying their medications, or who don't have the money for a hearing aid, or glasses, or dentures. There are about 70,000 of them in this country. One in four Holocaust survivors here lives this sort of life. It's hard to believe that people know about it, especially people in power, and that it goes on anyway. But it does. Rosen's real problem, he says, is paying for his medicines.

"I take 28 medicines a day," he says. Some of the government-subsidized brands that he can afford are "water" that do him no good, he says, so he has to buy the expensive, unsubsidized brands if he can't finagle a doctor into giving them to him for free.
"When I can't afford the medicine, I'll cut down on my inhalation treatment. Instead of four times a day like I'm supposed to, I'll do it three times a day." The consequence are humiliating. "I'm embarrassed to say this, but when I have an asthma attack, I pee in my pants." He starts to cry. "One day I'll cut my throat."

Theoretically, Rosen has a Holon municipal social worker assigned to him, but, as social workers have hundreds or even thousands of cases each to handle, Rosen has had only one home visit during his old age. "My teeth hurt," he says, taking out his dentures and saying he can't afford to fix or replace them. He's got eyeglasses only because a German woman who read about his plight sent him money to buy a pair. The Keren (Foundation for the Benefit of Holocaust Victims in Israel), which pays part of his caregiver's salary, had to turn him down for a grant for the glasses, because it doesn't have nearly enough money to meet all the basic needs of financially-strapped survivors.

Noting that his old-age pension comes out of taxes he himself paid during his working years, and that his reparations money comes from Germany, Rosen raises his good right hand and says bitterly, "With one hand I worked over 50 years, and what do I get from the government?" Referring to all the Holocaust survivors who came to Israel in the years after World War II, he says with outraged pride, "We helped build this country!"

The figure 70,000 impoverished Holocaust survivors in Israel is a conservative estimate, the one used by the Keren. Of these, some 20,000 are Europeans; the remaining 50,000 immigrated from the former Soviet Union (FSU) since 1990. In general, the Europeans suffered much worse under the Nazis. The great majority (although not all) of the survivors from the FSU escaped Hitler's invasion, or were relocated by their government toward Siberia, where they were safe from the Germans but had to endure extreme cold and hunger.

"They weren't in concentration camps, they don't have numbers on their arms, so are they Holocaust survivors? Well, they were on the run from the Nazis. They suffered terribly. Many of those from Ukraine were in Nazi camps and witnessed members of their family being murdered. So yes, they are Holocaust survivors," says Dr. Natan Kellermann, a top official of the organization Amcha, which provides social and therapeutic services to about 9,500 survivors, and which, like the Keren, would have many more clients if it had the money to help them.

Compared to European survivors, however, those from the FSU tend to be considerably poorer - partly because they basically started over from zero in this country at an advanced age, partly because they usually do not get the regular German reparation payments or monthly Israeli survivor's pension that many of the European survivors get. With few exceptions, the only compensation FSU survivors of the Holocaust ever got was a one-time payment from Germany, typically of 5,000 DM, which would be about NIS 14,000 today.

Among Holocaust survivors who can be found eating in soup kitchens and wearing charity-store clothes, the overwhelming majority, probably over 90%, are from the FSU. In a study two years ago by Jenny Brodsky, an expert on aging at JDC-Brookdale, and Hebrew University demographer Sergio Della Pergola, it was found that 35% of Holocaust survivors in Israel require economic aid, such as free blankets or heaters, to get through the winter cold; 25% have to choose between spending money on food or on other basic needs like medicines and utilities; 16% can't afford regular phone calls and visits to their children living in this country; and 13% suffer "food insecurity," meaning they can't afford to eat nutritiously on a dependable basis.

The economic pressure on poor Holocaust survivors is made worse by their unusually high health care expenses. Most everyone understands that Holocaust survivors suffer psychological trauma, and that it never completely goes away. What may be less widely known is that they also tend to suffer much more than normal from physical illness. This is especially true of those who lived some of their childhood or adolescence under Nazi persecution. And as the years have passed, of course, these "child survivors" have become a steadily larger part of the Holocaust survivor population. Today they are a majority or close to it.

"These people were malnourished during their youth, so now they have an extremely high incidence of osteoporosis [weakening of the bones], which means hip replacements and such. They have much more than their share of cancer, high blood pressure, tooth and gum diseases, and blindness," says Dubby Arbel, general manager of the Keren.

In Rivka Hilsenrat's Ramat Gan apartment, the cellophane tape is still on the bedroom windows from the 1991 Gulf War. (The Scuds fell not far away.) The paint in the old-fashioned apartment is chipped, the surface of the kitchen cabinet is peeling, the air conditioner is a relic. At the age of "80-plus," Hilsenrat, who lost much of her family to the Nazis in Ukraine, and who went blind five years ago, lives alone in a deteriorating tenement. Between her NIS 2,000 a month from Germany, her NIS 1,100 old-age pension, her caregiver from the government and the Keren, her children who come cook for her on Fridays, and the volunteers who drop in from time to time, Hilsenrat, who's been in Israel since 1950, can just keep her head above water. She's always in overdraft, but has enough to pay her bills and buy her medicines. As for food, she says: "How much can I eat?"

She's a kindly-faced lady, all bundled up, eager to please and almost desperately happy to have visitors to talk to. She starts crying, though, when she remembers Ukraine. "I lost half of my family, my three brothers, everyone went. My father died in the street, I sold my dress for half a loaf of bread so we could stay alive." She seems to see an unbroken line between the griefs of her past and her troubles of today. "How can I pay the electricity, the telephone, the gas? My children can't help, my son had open heart surgery, my daughter has scoliosis. I can't afford to buy a present for my grandchildren. My husband died three years ago, he didn't have a pension. This is an old house, there's always something breaking, I have to pay for somebody to fix it. I have a social worker but she doesn't come, they give me a basket of food for Pessah, that's it. I don't sleep well, I don't walk well, I have high blood pressure. I have to take a taxi to the Kupat Holim, it costs so much." Hilsenrat is not homeless, she's not hungry, she can afford the basics. She survives. "My life is very hard," she weeps. "No one believes me."

I ask MK Colette Avital, considered the survivors' leading advocate in politics, how the people in power, the people in control of the nation's purse strings, can allow Holocaust survivors in this country to be poor. "The answers I've gotten are that we've done more than our own share, that we ended up paying the survivors more than we got from Germany because the survivors lived longer than was expected. The finance ministers say, 'Where will we get the money?'" Avital explains over the telephone. "Maybe they're afraid of setting some sort of precedence. I've even heard people argue that Israel should not have to be [financially responsible to the survivors] for those crimes."

The only compensation to survivors that comes out of the Israeli government's pocket is the monthly pension, typically NIS 1,040, that goes to some 50,000 survivors. These are the ones who suffered the worst under the Nazis and who arrived in Israel by 1953, the year the reparations agreement with Germany took effect. The Israeli government also gives Amcha, which provides social clubs, psychological therapy and home visits to 9,500 survivors, 2% of its budget. To the budget of the Keren, which provides home nursing care, emergency grants and emergency dispatch alarms to 30,000 survivors, the government contributes nearly 10% - up from 2% a few years ago. The bulk of Amcha's and the Keren's funds come from the New York-based Claims Conference, which administers unclaimed Jewish-owned property in Germany.

"I found out only recently," continues Avital, "that the Israeli government continues to get money from Germany - $200 million a year. After you subtract from that the money the [Israeli] government gives to Holocaust survivors, there's still a lot of money left over." She goes on to say that Israel, in effect, taxes the German reparations payments of Holocaust survivors who enter state-owned old-age homes by taking 8% of their reparations toward the nursing home's fee. Noting that the reparations agreement with Germany declares these payments non-taxable, Avital says the government "argues that it's not a tax, but the fact is that the government is deducting money from payments that are supposed to go entirely to Holocaust survivors." Furthermore, she says a survivor cannot get more than roughly NIS 3,600 a month in combined Israeli old-age pension and German reparations. (The latter usually runs NIS 1,000 to NIS 2,000 a month.) "The government deducts anything over about NIS 3,600 a month," she explains, "so God forbid you don't end up with more than that."

It should be noted that out of the 260,000 Holocaust survivors in Israel - again, using the Keren's low estimate - only about 50,000 receive German reparations, based on the same criteria as those of the Israeli-funded survivor's pension. Comparing Israel with other countries on how generous or ungenerous they are to their resident Holocaust survivors isn't a simple matter. There is no objective answer. There are economic variables: how rich the country is, how many Holocaust survivors live there, what sort of aid the country gives its elderly citizens in general. But there is also the moral question: Does the Jewish state have a greater responsibility for the welfare of its Holocaust survivors than other countries, or doesn't it? The governments of Germany, France and Austria give more financial aid to resident Holocaust survivors than the Israeli government does, but those countries were culpable for the Holocaust. On the other hand, notes Avital, Israel is the only state that gets Holocaust reparations money from another state.

In general, Western Europe is where Holocaust survivors fare best financially - if not for the survivor's benefits, then for the benefits that go to all elderly citizens in those prosperous social democracies, says Natan Kellerman of Amcha. He adds that there is a legitimate argument, even if he disagrees with it, against the Israeli government favoring Holocaust survivors over other poor, elderly citizens: "First, the government [already] gives them more [the NIS 1,040 monthly state pension received by about one in five survivors]. Second, in a Jewish state, should a poor, aged Ethiopian immigrant or Moroccan immigrant receive less assistance than a Holocaust survivor?"

Yet Ze'ev Factor, chairman of the Keren and himself a survivor of the Lodz ghetto, Auschwitz and Buchenwald, argues that to a substantial degree, the State of Israel grew out of the Holocaust, whose living human legacy was the survivors. Not only did the Holocaust play a crucial role in the UN's recognition of the state, but in the early years of nation-building, "Israel built roads, hospitals and an army with the help of German reparations money," he points out.

As for the argument that the poverty of Holocaust survivors should not take precedent over the poverty of other aged Israelis, Factor replies: "The survivors' quota of suffering was more than filled up a long time ago. You cannot allow them to be hungry again. You cannot allow a Holocaust survivor to be cut off from the world again because he can't afford a hearing aid."

Jenny Rozenstain, who was imprisoned in a Nazi-run ghetto in Ukraine at the age of five or six, is today, at 71, a little bundle of energy. She talks non-stop and is a prolific painter; the walls of her old Tel Aviv apartment are covered with her artwork. Most of the paintings are either cheerful and colorful, often of flowers, or nightmarish, recalling scenes from the Mogilov ghetto. Rozenstain's personality seems to be sort of like her paintings - toward the end of the two-hour interview in her home, the warmth that came through her awful sorrow began giving way to cynicism and suspicion.

By strange coincidence, she was in the same ghetto as Rivka Hilsenrat, and the two women came to Israel in the same year, 1950, but Rozenstain doesn't recognize the name. In the Mogilov ghetto, she saw the Nazis chop her four-month-old sister's head off with an axe and shoot her grandmother to death. The Nazis also did terrible things to Rozenstain herself. "I have no one to talk to, no grave to go visit," she says. "I don't need money, I just need a little relief in my life." But the fact is she does need money. Echoing Leopold Rosen, she says, "There are days I don't eat, but I'm used to not eating. My medicines I have to take, though." She suffers from depression, anxiety attacks that don't let her catch her breath, a heart condition and osteoporosis. "I need dentures that cost NIS 8,000, and special glasses that cost NIS 2,200," she adds. "Where am I supposed to get the money?"

Living alone, her two children long having left the house, she and her late husband cashed in his pension in 1990, when, she says, her husband's heart surgeon convinced them it would be better if the operation was done privately. "My husband died on the operating table," Rozenstain says. Her landlord is now trying to evict her from the apartment, which she says she's been paying for on a "key money," or virtual ownership, basis since 1963. The eviction proceedings have forced her to borrow NIS 10,000 for a lawyer. She lives on German reparations that come to about NIS 1,500 a month plus NIS 2,200 a month in Israeli old-age pension. "But I know other [Holocaust survivors] who have it much worse, who go through the garbage bins for food," she says. "They make a big joke out of us." Rozenstain's cynicism and suspicion are not without reason. Social service professionals often say Israel's safety net has shredded, that the state has relinquished responsibility for the needy to private charities.

Dudi Zilberschlag, who runs the country's largest network of soup kitchens, Meir Panim, says that of the 8,500 Israelis who eat lunch at the 15 branches, upwards of 2,000 are Holocaust survivors. A few hundred of them are from Europe, and the rest are FSU immigrants. "Holocaust survivors seem to be more worried about getting something to eat than the other people who come here," says Zilberschlag. "When you see people lined up outside the door at 11, 11:30, waiting for us to open, a large number are survivors."

On a very cold, gray February day in Jerusalem, the lunch crowd at the Meir Panim near the Central Bus Station is thinner than usual. "When it's cold like this, a lot of people don't want to leave their houses. They prefer to go without a meal," says one of the cooks. Of the 400 to 600 people who eat lunch here on an average day, more than 200 are Holocaust survivors - all from the FSU, says Aviva Ben-Haim, who runs the branch. The menu for the day is a roll, vegetable soup, beets, olives and peppers, meat, vegetables and rice. Most of the diners, who eat silently at tables for four, appear in their 60s and older. Few of the survivors agree to be interviewed; the three who do insist on anonymity.

"Grigory," "Olga" and "Vassily" each were relocated with their families to the Ural Mountains near Siberia in 1941, and remained there until the war ended. Only Vassily, 68, doesn't remember being hungry all the time, but that's because his mother was lucky enough to work in a food warehouse. All three, however, remember the cold. "It got down to 40 below," says Grigory, 77. All they have is their meager old-age pension, except Vassily, who tries to find work to help pay the nurse for his wife, who has cancer. Like Grigory, he got his winter coat and the rest of his clothes from an Israeli charity. Olga says she brought her coat and the rest of her clothes from Belarus to Israel in 1992. "I haven't bought one piece of clothing since I've been here," she notes. I ask them if they go hungry in the course of a day. Vassily says he doesn't. "We live better in Israel than we did in Russia, thank God. We don't regret coming here," he says. Grigory, a divorc who lives alone in a hostel, says, "I eat a little kasha, a little vegetables, maybe a piece of salami. And tea. I don't always have enough to eat, but I'm not so hungry."

Olga, 72, a widow who lives in a hostel with her sister, is plainly uncomfortable with the question about whether she goes hungry, and tries to avoid answering it. "I'll put it this way - I'm not spoiled," she says. "I'm grateful for what I've got." With 70,000 impoverished Holocaust survivors in Israel - not to mention the survivors living in poverty in other countries - a question arises: Why are so many hundreds of millions of dollars still being spent by Jews, especially in America and Israel, on more Holocaust museums, statues and other memorials?

In reply, activists on behalf of the survivors say they fully appreciate the importance of educating people about the Holocaust so it will never be forgotten. But they also argue strenuously that starting right now, and continuing for the next 10, 15 years or so, a good deal of money should be shifted from Holocaust education and memorialization and used instead to help needy survivors. The reason is obvious: In another 10, 15 years or so, all but a very few Holocaust survivors, poor or otherwise, will have died. "I can tell you that about five of them will die in Israel this week. That's the average," says Kellermann. "These people are in the last stage of their life," says Factor, 81, speaking with difficulty because of a recent stroke. "We're not going to be able to help them in the future. Their future is now."

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