Auschwitz survivor Victor Bilski gets U.S. Social Security and restitution money from the German government, but it's not enough to cover all his needs.
So when Hungary announced that it would accept new applications for a restitution program for Holocaust victims, he joined hundreds of other Los Angeles survivors lining up to apply. The surge took advocates by surprise and overwhelmed the legal service organization Bet Tzedek, whose officials hastily scheduled extra clinics to help with the onerous paperwork.
Although billions of dollars in Holocaust restitution have been paid to survivors -- from the German government, by Swiss banks and from other governments and insurance companies across Europe -- many have received paltry or no awards. Twenty-five percent of the estimated 120,000 Holocaust survivors in the United States have incomes below the federal poverty line, compared with only 5% of other Jews older than 55, according to a 2003 study.
Now, no longer working and in ill health, survivors are finding that they need money more than ever, according to Mark Rothman, Bet Tzedek's Holocaust services advocate.
"They are willing to overcome the insult of what they could arguably view as blood money," he said.
This program is designed to provide some compensation to people for the loss of relatives; its focus is not restitution for having been in a concentration camp oneself.
The sums it offers amount to no fortune: Family members are eligible to receive $1,800 for each parent and $900 for each sibling who died in Nazi extermination campaigns with the help of Hungarian collaborators. But the money comes at a time when other funds are dwindling.
"As the need becomes greater, the availability of funds becomes less," said Michael Bazyler, a Whittier Law School professor who has written a book about Holocaust restitution. He added that the problem is worldwide, with survivors in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe facing the worst crisis.
In the United States, Jewish social service agencies have tried to step into the gap. This year Jewish Family Service is helping 600 Los Angeles survivors with utility bills, food, medication and home care. Bet Tzedek officials say their organization has offered 3,000 indigent Holocaust survivors help in staving off eviction, getting Supplemental Security Income or negotiating the Medicare system.
Last week, the officials said they expected 50 or so of the about 10,000 Holocaust survivors in Los Angeles to appear for the Hungarian sign-up. Instead, five times that many sought help.
There isn't much time: The paperwork, with notarized documentation attached, must be postmarked and on its way to Budapest by July 31.
At one clinic last week, Bet Tzedek's North Hollywood office was bursting with tables of elderly survivors. Many had blue numbers tattooed on their forearms; some clutched tattered letters or sepia photographs of long-dead loved ones. Almost all wore identical expressions of confusion.
Bilski sat at a table in the back trying to figure out how many forms to complete to make claims for his wife's dead siblings and parents. Bilski was born in Poland, but his wife, Rose, who died seven years ago, was Hungarian.
At another table, 78-year-old Berta Kaczor waited for help.
A cheerful grandmother with carefully coifed hair and a pink shirt, she chatted happily about her grandchildren and more somberly about World War II, in which she lost her mother, her father and six siblings.
Kaczor escaped the gas chambers, she said, by getting assigned to make bombs. After the war, she wound up in a displaced persons camp. She began describing this experience, but was interrupted by a paralegal in a bright pink T-shirt.
"Can I have the whiteout?" asked Golnoush Goharzad, as she struggled with the maddeningly complicated forms. A different form is required for each dead relative, and the questions go on for pages, in language that even the lawyers say is confusing.
Kaczor paused as the whiteout was passed across the table.
"I met my husband, and three days later I married him," she continued. "I was 16. I'd been to Auschwitz. I wanted to build a home; gradually we got used to each other."
In the next chair, Goharzad, who has been helping Aharon Samuel, 82, apply for restitution for his two brothers, his parents and his first wife, finally completed the first of the forms. "Sign here and here and here," she said.
Across the table, Eric S. Beane turned to Irving Goldberger, 82. "Which victim do you want to start with?" Beane asked.
From a folder, Goldberger pulled out pages of Hungarian text. He lost more than half a dozen family members, he said. "If I could get anything from them," he added, referring to Hungary, "I would take it."
Kaczor resumed chatting. After the war, she and her husband moved to Brooklyn and opened a candy store. They served egg creams. Now she lives in the San Fernando Valley to be near her two grown sons.
Kaczor was interrupted again by an exasperated Mildred Friedmann, whose husband was a Hungarian survivor.
"It's impossible," she said. "I believe the Hungarians are going to throw most of these out." Some of the survivors said they had applied for restitution from the Hungarian government 10 years ago under a program that paid less than $200 for each family member -- and many said their claims had been rejected.
Wendy Pittman, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Humanitarian Aid Foundation, which gives money to Jewish service organizations across the country, said more needs to be done to help aging Holocaust survivors in their final years.
"We have a moral obligation to close this dark chapter of our history properly," she said.