In Israel, some Holocaust survivors face hard times
Tucked into the hillside of this ancient port city is a sight few Israelis ever imagined they’d see in the Jewish state.
It’s a simple, small housing shelter, converted from an old office building and not unlike ones for the homeless, drug addicts or battered women.
This facility, however, has a different clientele: Holocaust survivors.
The dozen or so residents are among those who more than six decades ago survived concentration camps or spent years as refugees fleeing Nazi persecution during World War II.
In Israel, many built prosperous, productive lives. But in old age, they’ve ended up broke, alone, sick or homeless, facing a painful choice between buying medicine or paying rent. Most have no remaining family; others have relatives unable or unwilling to help.
It’s a pleasant enough shelter, with sunny rooms, free medical care, hot meals and plenty of smiling volunteers. Funded by the Helping Hands to Friends charity, it’s the first of its kind in Israel, and a new 80-bed wing, currently under construction, has a waiting list of 1,800.
Despite the gratitude of those living here, there’s also a sense of bitterness and betrayal. Residents ask how a nation established in part on their suffering could turn its back on them now.
“We helped found the state of Israel and built it,” said Miryam Kremin, 88, who escaped a Polish ghetto as a teenager, leaving behind parents whom she never saw again. “They should make our final years better.”
Kremin did not apply for Holocaust reparations until recently because she and her husband, an engineer, didn’t need the money. But after he died, Kremin said she depleted most of her savings on rent and prescriptions.
Her room at the shelter has a homey feel, with a pink-flowered bedspread and purple curtains. But she says this isn’t how she envisioned retirement. “We’ve been through so much,” she said. “We deserve more.”
Retired house painter Joseph Kunstlich, 83, survived the Buchenwald and Auschwitz concentration camps by mining coal, working assembly lines and doing whatever else the Nazis ordered him to do. Still haunted by nightmares upon arrival in the Holy Land, he volunteered to fight in the 1948 war for Israeli independence.
Unlike others at the shelter, Kunstlich never had a problem establishing his claim for Holocaust reparations. “You can’t fake this,” he said, holding out a forearm tattooed with a Nazi-issued ID number.
But medical bills absorb half his compensation of about $900 a month, and an attorney, he said, swindled much of the rest. “The attorney went to jail for 12 years, but I got nothing,” he said.
Carol Spiegelman, 70, spent his early childhood in a Romanian-controlled work camp. He went broke two years ago and found himself sleeping in the Tel Aviv airport. Because he has no documentation to prove he lived in the camp with his parents, his reparations claims have been rejected.
It never mattered before because he supported himself as a refinery worker. Now divorced with no children, he lives in a room barely big enough for a twin bed, two small tables and a TV, sharing a bathroom down the hall.
“God has punished me too harshly, I think,” he said.
Poverty among Holocaust victims in Israel is something of a dirty little secret. An estimated 70,000 survivors — one-third of those living in Israel — don’t have enough money to make ends meet, victims support groups say. The survivors show up in soup kitchens or government welfare agencies.
Tsipora Yaffe, 74, who escaped the 1941 Odessa massacre that killed her father, collects recyclable bottles from trash bins and off the street. “It’s humiliating,” Yaffe said, who does not live at the shelter. “But I close my eyes and do it.”
In a country where the Holocaust still shapes social and political debate, such stories stir anger. Advocates for survivors say that in the zeal to “never forget” those who died, the needs of survivors are being forgotten.
“As a member of Knesset and a citizen, I am ashamed of how the Jewish state has treated Holocaust survivors,” lawmaker Moshe Gafni, chairman of the Knesset Finance Committee, said after the government recently delayed implementation of expanded medical subsidies for survivors. “The treatment is disgraceful. [It] shames me and should shame all of us.”
Shimon Sabag, a soft-spoken former food vendor who founded the shelter, said he was stunned to discover how many Holocaust victims live in poverty.
“I always thought these people had been taken care of,” said the father of two, who started the Helping Hands charity — “Yadezer” in Hebrew — with a $1-million settlement he received after breaking his back in a work-related car accident.
He began with a soup kitchen in Haifa and immediately noticed how many people in line had tattooed numbers on their arms.
“It gave me shivers,” he said. From there, his group began offering home food delivery and free medical and dental care to survivors.
In late 2008, he opened the 12-bed shelter, which quickly filled up. With a donation from the German chapter of the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem, construction began this year on the expansion next door. Work was suspended recently for lack of funds.
With about half of Holocaust survivors now older than 80 and dying at a rate of 35 per day, Sabag called the situation urgent. “We only have a short time to fix what we can,” he said.
The problem, according to Sabag and others, is that many survivors fall through the cracks or receive insufficient aid from Holocaust compensation programs, which are largely funded by $60 billion in German reparations and administered by the Israeli government and New York-based Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany.
Many survivors living in Israel receive monthly payments ranging from $300 to $1,000. But as survivors age and their health problems grow, the payments are no longer enough.
Holocaust survivors in Israel are twice as likely to suffer from chronic illnesses as other people their age and nearly half report trouble sleeping, according to a recent Israeli study. Sabag said 80% of those seeking beds at his facility need medication for Holocaust-related mental health disorders.
Some survivors receive no compensation at all, usually because they were unable to provide proof. In some cases, survivors have been required to provide witnesses or documentation that they lived in a concentration camp for at least six months, or in a ghetto for 18 months.
“They make people go through hell to get the money,” said Orly Vilnai-Federbush, an Israeli filmmaker who has documented the plight of Holocaust survivors, including one woman who returned to Germany, where she found it was easier to obtain compensation.
After survivors protested outside parliament wearing yellow Stars of David, the government in 2008 launched a program to provide about $300 a month to those who could not qualify for other help. But bureaucracy and documentation remain daunting, critics say.
When Spiegelman applied for the new program, he was told that his parents’ names were found on the work camp detainee list but that his and his sister’s were not.
“They want proof I was there,” he said. “Where else would I be? Where would I find a witness now?”
At 67, Shoshana Roza-Levy is the youngest resident at the shelter. Her claims were also rejected because her parents fled Poland in 1939 and she was born in current-day Kyrgyzstan, where the Nazis didn’t reach. Her mother died of malaria as they lived as refugees and her father was drafted into the Russian army.
“They tell me I am not a Holocaust victim,” she said. “They make a mockery out of me.”
Like Spiegelman, she said the rejection never mattered while her husband was alive. But after his death, she had a stroke and her stepchildren took over the apartment where she lived. Five years ago, she lost a leg to diabetes and lived in public hospitals or synagogue-affiliated shelters.
“So here I am, for the lack of any other option,” she said from her wheelchair. “My whole world is in this one room.”
The hot plate is a far cry from the well-stocked kitchen where she once baked cakes. And there’s no space to indulge her passion for painting, though the walls are covered with her work.
“To live with grace in a place like this, I should have been born 200 years ago,” she said.
Israeli government officials say they are working to improve services, noting that they are distributing about $700 million this year to 87,000 survivors in the form of compensation and other benefits, including discounted healthcare. More than 35,000 people now receive monthly payments under the 2008 program, officials said.
“The state is certainly doing more for Holocaust survivors in recent years, although we would like to be able to do more,” said Ofra Ross, general manager of the Holocaust Survivors Authority at the Ministry of Finance.
But advocates say the government response has been spotty, increasing during periods of public pressure, such as protests at parliament, but then waning.
Residents at the shelter say they have learned to rely on themselves, becoming a family of sorts, sharing holiday meals and watching out for one another. Spiegelman, despite a gruff manner, is often the one who takes Kremin’s arm on walks or runs errands for the staff. When one resident died recently, he rallied everyone around another who was particularly distraught.
“It’s wonderful to see how they support each other,” Sabag said.
For visitors, such as schoolchildren and historians, the residents feel an obligation to recite Holocaust experiences. But when the shelter doors close at night and it’s just them, there’s an unspoken understanding.
“We don’t need to talk about that,” Spiegelman said.
A favorite gathering spot is a small courtyard in front, with a couple of benches under the shade of a giant ficus tree. Sabag installed a copper sculpture of the numeral 6 as a memorial to the 6 million Jews who died in the Holocaust.
This is where Spiegelman chain-smokes, Kunstlich watches the schoolchildren across the street, and Kremin lights a candle each day next to a makeshift gravestone she put here to remember the parents she had to leave behind.
Batsheva Sobelman of The Times’ Jerusalem Bureau contributed to this report.