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Who is a Holocaust survivor, how many survivors are alive today, who among them has the most pressing needs? Almost 60 years after the end of World War II, these questions still resonate acutely, and spark debates among researchers, legal experts, politicians and the survivors themselves.

The fact that hundreds of millions of dollars belonging to Holocaust victims remain to be disbursed intensifies this debate. The discussions address the question of how the money is to be distributed among survivors. At the end of this month, a crucial discussion about this issue is scheduled for a federal court in Brooklyn, N.Y..

The discussion is expected to pivot around reports prepared in past months by two of the world's leading experts on the demography of Jewish communities: Jacob Ukeles, from New York, and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem's Prof. Sergio DellaPergola. The two prepared their reports at the request of former U.S. Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger, who serves as chairman of the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims (ICHEIC). Prof. DellaPergola also submitted his report to Minister of Diaspora Affairs Natan Sharansky.

The two researchers reached radically different conclusions. On Ukeles' count, there are 687,900 Holocaust survivors in the world today. DellaPergola's estimate is much larger: 1,092,000 survivors.

Both demographers relied on the same standard in terms of defining a Holocaust survivor: Any Jew who lived for any period of time in a country that was ruled by the Nazis or their allies is called a Holocaust survivor (by DellaPergola) or a Nazi victim (by Ukeles).

The gap in the results derives mainly from DellaPergola's decision to count as a survivor Jews who lived in the Holocaust period in North African countries (excluding Egypt), Syria and Lebanon. On his estimate, out of the 600,000 Jews who lived in these countries during the Holocaust period, about a quarter million are alive today, and about 150,000 of them live in Israel. "When I examined reports formulated in the past by Ukeles and other researchers, I found that they simply `forgot' to include these Jews in their lists," says DellaPergola.

Most of the North African countries, Syria and Lebanon were ruled for some length of time by Vichy France, which collaborated with the Nazis. Libya was ruled until 1942 by Italy, Nazi Germany's main European ally. All these countries passed anti-Semitic legislation; in some, Jews were physically persecuted.

"All these Jews faced immediate physical dangers, and so all should be called, in symbolic and historical senses, Holocaust victims," says Dr. Aryeh Barnea, a legal expert and Holocaust researcher. Such recognition, he stresses, does not have legal validity. "In order to receive legal recognition as a survivor, a person needs to prove that he or she physically suffered, and was persecuted by the Nazis," says Barnea.

Not everyone accepts DellaPergola's revision. Last week, he presented his findings to a group of Holocaust survivors at the Knesset, and drew a mixed response. "There were those who said it isn't right to relate to Jews from North Africa as Holocaust survivors - they argue that Jews in these countries didn't face the Holocaust, as they did in Europe," says DellaPergola.

Holocaust researchers similarly criticize DellaPergola's finding. Dr. Irit Abramski Bligh, who heads Yad Vashem's Arab states division, disputes DellaPergola's sweeping designation. "There's no doubt the Holocaust reached states like Tunisia and Libya; but in countries like Lebanon and Syria, the Vichy regime was toppled before it could do anything. To say there was a Holocaust there is absurd," she claims.

Prof. Yehuda Bauer, one of the world's leading Holocaust researchers, notes the dispute about the definition of "survivor" started soon after the Holocaust, and has yet to be settled. "There was a major argument about the definition of `Holocaust survivor' when Yad Vashem was founded, and in the end the parties to the dispute decided not to reach a decision," he says.

Bauer's own view is that it is wrong to rely on a sweeping definition of Holocaust survivor in reference to North African Jewry. He adds that most of the Jews who lived in France, Romania, and Bulgaria, and millions of Jews who fled from Nazi-ruled lands to other countries, are not Holocaust survivors. "As I see it," says Bauer, "Holocaust survivors are only those people who were physically persecuted by the Nazis or their cohorts. This means people who lived in ghettos and concentration camps or compulsory labor frameworks, who hid or who joined the partisan ranks. I don't mean to denigrate the suffering of people who suffered from race laws and anti-Semitic decree, or those who fled with nothing in their possession, but these are not Holocaust survivors."