Thousands of Israeli Holocaust Survivors Still Living in Poverty, Fighting for Recognition

Seventy years after the end of WWII, some 20,000 aging Holocaust survivors receive little or no support from Israel, and 45,000 live under poverty line.

Ariel David

Luta “Lusha” Brachfeld was 3.5 years old when Nazi Germany invaded her native Poland in September 1939. Her memories of World War II are few and fragmentary, but no less horrifying. She remembers “buildings collapsing as if they were made of matchsticks” during the three-week terror bombing of Warsaw by the Luftwaffe, which still gives her panic attacks every time an air-raid siren sounds – not an unheard-of event in Israel.

She remembers the color and texture of her paternal grandfather’s trousers, as he often bounced her on his knees. And she remembers seeing those same legs dangling in the air when she found that he had hanged himself in desperation.

She remembers the hunger and crush of people in the early days of the Warsaw Ghetto, where her family lived on Mila Street – a few steps from number 18, soon to become the headquarters of the 1943 revolt against the Nazis.

She also remembers being carried by her mother on a desperate flight in the snow toward the Soviet Union, where she and her family survived as refugees.

It is partly because of the way in which she escaped death that, today, this 79-year-old widow and grandmother of three is forced to fight an uphill battle in the Israeli courts to receive the same state support given to other Holocaust survivors.

On the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day in Israel on Thursday, and 70 years after the end of World War II, survivors and groups that represent them say the complexities of Israeli law have created inequalities in the benefits given to Holocaust victims.

Despite a new law passed last year that increased the funds and services granted to Holocaust survivors, they say that 1 in 4 survivors in Israel live in poverty, and some 20,000 are unrecognized or only partially supported by the state.

According to a report published on Monday by the Foundation for the Benefit of Holocaust Victims in Israel, there are some 189,000 Holocaust survivors in Israel, two-thirds of them female. On average, 14,200 die each year – nearly 40 per day. Some 45,000 have an income of less than 3,000 shekels ($760) per month, putting them below the poverty line, the report says. That marks a slight improvement from the 50,000 impoverished survivors that were counted last year.

According to the Claims Conference, worldwide there are some 500,000 Jewish Holocaust survivors alive today, mostly in Israel and the United States. The figure includes those who fled due to Nazi persecution or suffered from various restrictions on liberty. About 20 percent were in camps, ghettos or in hiding under Nazi occupation.

Until recently, only survivors who had immigrated to Israel before 1953 automatically received a monthly pension, regardless of their individual experiences during the Holocaust. Those who arrived later were not entitled to benefits.

This situation was partially amended last year, when a law spearheaded by then-Finance Minister Yair Lapid allocated an additional one billion shekels ($254 million) per year to survivors and granted them other benefits, including a total exemption on all medical costs and subsidized psychological treatment.

The law also granted equal treatment to survivors who had immigrated to Israel after 1953 – but only if they had been in concentration camps or ghettos.

Brachfeld, who emigrated to Israel after 1953, has gone to court to have her rights recognized. She must now prove to a judge that she lived in the Warsaw Ghetto after it was officially established in October 1940. That is difficult, because her mother never revealed to her when and how she managed to flee the city, and “they didn’t exactly give you a certificate when you escaped from the Ghetto,” as Brachfeld tells Haaretz.

All Brachfeld remembers is crossing into Soviet-occupied eastern Poland sometime before Hitler launched his invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941.

“We were in a field completely covered in snow and there were three Russian soldiers who were gesturing with their rifles, telling us to go back,” she recalls. “I went up to one of them and said, ‘But sir, my hands are so cold.’ And that saved us – they let us pass.”

Brachfeld spent the rest of the war mostly in the Urals, where her father, who had fled at the start of the war, worked in a tank factory. They returned to Poland after the war, but, disgusted with the persistent anti-Semitism there, moved to Israel in 1956, where the 20-year-old Brachfeld built her family and worked as an X-Ray technician.

Lapid’s new law has helped many people, but by restricting benefits for post-1953 immigrants to survivors of camps and ghettos, it has largely left out an estimated 20,000 survivors who went through different, but no less painful, experiences, says Colette Avital, chair of the Center of Organizations of Holocaust Survivors in Israel.

These include Polish Jews like Brachfeld, who were forced to flee to the Soviet Union – as well as thousands of Romanian Jews who were not deported to camps but went through pogroms and were pressed into forced labor, Avital tells Haaretz. There are also thousands of Sephardi Jews who were persecuted in North Africa and the Middle East by Germany’s allies and pro-Nazi regimes.

Painful disparity

Under the new Israeli law, some of these survivors qualify for an annual pension of 3,600 shekels. This is much less than what the state allocates for most survivors – a monthly stipend that starts from 2,200 shekels and increases according to degree of disability. This disparity occurs even with members of the same family who lived through the same circumstances but arrived in Israel at different times.

Dita Greenberg, a 75-year-old survivor from northern Romania, was scheduled to be deported to Trasnistria shortly after her birth. But with the help of a neighbor, she and some of her family members escaped and spent the rest of the war hiding out at the home of relatives in the city of Botosani.

“We were on the deportation lists, so we lived in fear of being denounced by anyone, even a Jewish neighbor,” Greenberg recalls. “We never left the house. Even when I was sick with dysentery and a lung infection, they were too afraid to call a doctor for me.”

Her cousin Chaim, who was in hiding with them, came to Israel in 1951 and receives a monthly pension. But Greenberg does not qualify for the same benefits because she stayed on in Romania to care for her ailing father and was only able to leave the country in 1988.

“We have the same biography, and when I went to court, the judge told me that he recognizes my suffering but said in Latin, ‘Dura lex, sed lex’ – the law is harsh, but it is the law.”

Avital notes that this disparity is particularly painful because it concerns people who are more in need of the state’s support, mainly recent immigrants from former Communist regimes. “Many came as elderly people, who didn’t bring with them pension rights and who couldn’t work anymore,” explains Avital. “People who lived behind the Iron Curtain were punished twice: first in the war; and then because they were stuck living in Communist countries.”

A former diplomat and Labor MK, Avital says she has written to the heads of all major parties asking them to amend the law. She hopes the new government will take steps to give all survivors the same benefits.

“There is very little time left, their numbers are decreasing but their needs are increasing,” she notes. “Many cannot fend for themselves, they need home care, suffer from trauma, dementia, Alzheimer’s.”

In a written response, the Finance Ministry did not address the disparity of treatment between victims. However, it stressed that, thanks to Lapid’s law, it had “independently reached out to 145,000 survivors who are eligible for stipends or benefits” and “significantly reduced the bureaucracy that was a burden for many survivors.”

Brachfeld, the Warsaw Ghetto escapee, now lives in a small apartment in a retirement home in Tel Aviv. She says she is “not looking for pity” but just wants equal treatment for all survivors.

“My childhood was taken away from me and no one can give it back to me,” she says. “I don’t compare myself to someone who was in Auschwitz, but we are all survivors, and there shouldn’t be any discrimination between us.”