The Fight to Get Israel's Holocaust Survivors Their Benefits

'We are always encountering survivors who aren't getting even half of what they’re entitled to,' says head of aid organization; meanwhile a third of Israel's 200,000 survivors live in poverty and 1,000 die each month

The survivors’ conference in Ramat Gan, September 18, 2017.
Ofer Vaknin

Coka is fighting to get recognition for surviving the murderous regime at the World War II-era ghetto in the Romanian city Iasi; Tzila has fallen between the cracks and isn’t getting any money from the Poles or the Romanians; Polina is coping with a debt of 120,000 shekels (over $34,000) to Beilinson Hospital for a stay there; and Motke was forced to buy shoe inserts with all the money he gets from his survivor’s allowance.

They, like many other Holocaust survivors, are spending the last years of their lives fighting the Israeli and European bureaucracies to get benefits they’re entitled to. Many don’t even know what rights they have, even though these have been expanded considerably in the past few years, while others are aware but are having difficulty getting the funds because of a demanding bureaucracy that even younger people would have a hard time navigating.

These elderly people must download forms from the internet, find old documents that testify to previous citizenship and where they were located during the Holocaust; answer dozens of questions and obtain all the relevant information from government agencies in places like Poland and Romania – and have it approved.

Tzila Resnik.

To help survivors who are having a hard time handling these assignments alone, The Center for Organizations of Holocaust Survivors in Israel held a conference last week at Kfar Hamaccabiah in Ramat Gan for survivors seeking assistance and information. Between 9 A.M. and 2 P.M., elderly men and women waited in long lines to get information from the government agency booths at the site.

“You would think we were young people waiting for demobilization information from the army or to register for university,” said one survivor to her friend on line. In response, the friend brought over two chairs. “We’re already too old to stand and wait,” she said.

On another line, one of the survivors fainted. A Magen David Adom team was summoned and the old man was revived and resumed his place in line. But the incident only illustrated the urgency needed in helping survivors get what they’re entitled to. Some 1,000 Holocaust survivors die every month, and there are less than 200,000 survivors remaining in Israel. According to the Social Affairs Ministry, a third live under the poverty line.

Data obtained by Haaretz shows that over the past three years some 10,000 Holocaust survivors have initiated legal action to obtain benefits, allowances and compensation through the Legal Aid Division of the Justice Ministry. The unit for Holocaust survivors was set up in 2013 and provides assistance for free, with no means test. Others get help from the Holocaust organizations center and various other nonprofit groups that help survivors obtain benefits. Many others pay private lawyers and private companies hefty fees.

Coca Palmon.
Ofer Vaknin

One reason that survivors have to spend their last years fighting to get compensation is actually a positive one; in recent years the State of Israel and an increasing number of European countries have granted survivors an expanded array of rights. For example, survivors from Poland started to get a monthly allowance of 400 zlotys (395 shekels) in April 2015. In 2016, Serbia began returning property seized by Nazis. And just this past May, the Romanian government passed a law on returning property to Holocaust survivors that is relevant to 27,000 people here. The Romanian government has also started paying pensions to survivors living in Israel.

The problem arises because survivors are required to submit to these governments numerous documents in various languages that prove where they were during the Holocaust. The Holocaust organizations center has only two clerks responsible for assisting survivors with this task, and so far they have helped 4,000 people seeking money from Poland and 3,000 from Romania.

“The survivors’ difficulty has two parts – knowing what they’re entitled to, and getting the various countries to provide the benefits,” says Avi Rosenthal, director of the Holocaust organizations center. “We’re talking about elderly survivors, many of them childless. Without help it’s very hard to get these benefits. There are many survivors that fall between the cracks. We are always encountering survivors who aren’t getting even half of what they’re entitled to.”

Rules always changing

The dynamic legal situation is also an obstacle, explains Sari Vardi, the national Holocaust survivors coordinator in the Justice Ministry division. “There are constant legislative amendments and new decisions,” she says. “If yesterday I couldn’t get an allowance from a certain country, tomorrow that may change. It’s very important for survivors to apply for help. We are constantly encountering survivors who are getting the minimum, the lowest possible allowances, because they don’t demand more.”

Mordechai “Motke” Weisel.

The Finance Ministry’s Holocaust Survivors Authority, which is meant to integrate all the assistance offered to survivors, helps them obtain benefits through the local authorities, through mobile information centers and by sending letters to survivors to update them on new benefits available to them – but it cannot intervene to obtain benefits from other countries. Only if a survivor asks for help with the paperwork that other countries require will the authority assist, in coordination with the various authorities and the Holocaust organizations center.

“There are lots of agencies and lots of budgets, but there isn’t enough coordination between them,” adds Rosenthal. As Haaretz recently reported, the state comptroller has also demanded a coordinating body be established, but the Prime Minister’s Office has not made a decision for six months.

Meanwhile, the survivors continue their struggle. Tzila Resnik, 81, of Haifa, volunteers to help Polish survivors fill out forms to get their benefits, but she herself has yet to receive compensation. She was only three years old when the war broke out and the town whose ghetto her family was living in got annexed to Romania. When the Poles started to pay monthly stipends she sent the required applications numerous times. When the Polish authorities refused her request, she sent two appeals and is awaiting an answer.

“The Poles say to apply to the Romanians because they managed the ghetto,” she says. “But I can’t get compensation from Romania because I wasn’t born there. I’m not accepting this excuse.”

Coca Palmon, 83, of Haifa, was confined to the ghetto in Iasi, Romania. It was only two months ago that survivors of the death trains, pogroms and ghetto in Iasi were recognized as being eligible for pensions from the Romanian government. She is now in the process of establishing her past presence in the ghetto there.

“My father was on the death train, and our whole family was in the ghetto,” she says. “When the Russians bombed the city a bomb fell on our house. We lived in the basement without food or water for half a year,” she says. After immigrating to Israel she worked as a secretary in a medical clinic. “I don’t want to talk about my difficulties. I have my pride and I want to live in dignity and not be dependent on anyone. I want recognition for the horrors we went through after all those years and to get the money I’m entitled to. It’s very hard for us survivors to get the money. They should have made it more simple and dignified.”

Polina Factor, 80, lives in Ariel after coming here 18 months ago from Russia. She survived the Vitebsk ghetto when a German soldier who saw her blond hair asked, “What are you doing here with all these ‘Zhids,’ and ordered her and her mother out of the roundup of those being sent to their deaths.

She came to Israel as a tourist after the birth of a great-granddaughter, but had heart problems and had to undergo cardiac surgery at Beilinson. After the surgery she decided to immigrate and received an identity card, but since the surgery took place when she was still a tourist, she owes the hospital a huge sum, which her Russian insurance is refusing to cover. The Legal Aid Division is trying to help her get recognized as a Holocaust survivor and get benefits from the government. Her family has tried incessantly to get Health Ministry officials to help erase her debt.

“My mother was in a life-threatening situation,” says Polina’s daughter, Emma. “It isn’t fair to impose such a large debt without mercy, while at the same time we are merciful to the refugees of an enemy country [Syria]. None of them is paying any bills.”

Mordechai “Motke” Weisel was born in 1929 in Satmar, Transylvania. On his 15th birthday he arrived in Auschwitz, where he lost his entire family except his twin brother, Meir, and an older brother. After they came to Israel, Meir was killed in battle during the War of Independence. Motke became an army officer, is married to Esther, and has two children and eight grandchildren. He even lit an Independence Day beacon in 2007.

Yet he and his wife cannot make ends meet. Recently he was forced to buy shoe inserts with his entire allowance, and his wife desperately needs more nursing hours. “I’m not a charity case; I worked all my life and I’ve been through enough,” he says. “I have bad pain in my legs and I applied to everywhere I could to get inserts, but they told me there are no inserts for Holocaust survivors. So I had to buy them for more than 2,000 shekels, all the money I get from the Holocaust survivors authority. I’m helping my wife, whose nursing aide comes only once a week although we’ve asked for more. That’s how they treat 88- and 84-year-old Auschwitz survivors.”