On May 27, 1942, the Czech underground assassinated Reinhard Heydrich, number 3 in the Nazi hierarchy, among the architects of the Final Solution and a believer in cruelty to the Czech people. Last Wednesday, on the anniversary of the assassination, a conference was held in Czernin Palace, which was the Nazi headquarters in Prague, in the hall in which Heydrich would speak from time to time. Participating in the conference were representatives from 39 countries and 54 civil organizations. The conference was entitled “Living with Dignity: International Conference on Welfare for Holocaust Survivors and Other Victims of Nazi Persecution.”
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The conference at the palace, which today houses the Czech Foreign Ministry, was organized by the European Shoah Legacy Institute. The ESLI was established in Prague following the last conference, which concluded with the Terezin Declaration of 2009, signed by 47 countries. The signatories pledged to assist the organization in working to return private and public assets stolen during the Holocaust, particularly art treasures, and to care for the welfare of Jewish survivors and other victims – Gypsies, Soviet prisoners of war and people with political or sexual preferences that went against the Nazi doctrine. The purpose of last week’s conference was to examine what had been accomplished since the signing of the declaration six years ago, and what could still be done.
A sense of urgency emerged from statements by the representatives of the various countries and organizations, as well as from those of the survivors who were invited. Everyone warned that time was running out. The average age of the survivors worldwide, who number about half-a-million, is 82 to 83 years old (in Israel the average age is 86.) This means that within a few years, about half of them will pass away, and the opportunity will be missed to ameliorate their economic and medical conditions and ease the loneliness of many of them. Everyone demanded – help now. Health is deteriorating and needs are multiplying.
Some of the discussions were devoted to the question of what every signatory country to the Terezin Declaration had accomplished. Stuart Eizenstat, the U.S. State Department’s special adviser on Holocaust issues, who has been working for more than 20 years to return stolen assets and to meet the needs of survivors, reported that there are about 110,000 survivors living in the United States today, some 60,000 in New York. In that city of all places, which Eizenstat called the richest in the world, about half the survivors, some 30,000, are poor. In light of these figures, according to Eizenstat, President Barack Obama announced at the end of 2013 the allocation of $5 million to assist survivors, and the appointment of a special commissioner to oversee the program.
A tragic number indeed came from Russia: More than five million Red Army soldiers were captured by the Germans, who murdered about three million of them. Approximately 1.8 million were repatriated to the Soviet Union. Of this number, only 4,000 are receiving assistance and pensions.
Israel was praised by the non-Israeli survey-takers who presented the figures: There are 193,000 survivors currently living in Israel, most of whom receive pensions. About half receive additional grants and psychological assistance and everyone receives medical help. A special hotline has been established where survivors can ascertain their rights; soldiers and students visit the homes of survivors and assist in home maintenance, writing memoirs and filling out forms. In August 2014, the government voted to establish an additional program.
Nevertheless, some 40,000 survivors live below the poverty line, many of them immigrants from the former Soviet Union who arrived in Israel without assets or supportive family, or unable to change professions.
Many proposals were made to improve the situation: limiting the number of forms that survivors must fill out – a major difficulty in many countries; exempting survivors from income tax; additional household help; concentrating information from all countries on one website; establishing volunteer networks; refraining from deducting funds that come from Germany; obtaining additional funding (at the moment the main supporters of the organization’s activities are the United States, Israel and the Czech Republic) by restoring stolen property and making use of it when there are no heirs to meet survivors’ needs; taking loans and advances for immediate use; and even a proposal to send a vehicle with forms and funds to go from house to house for distribution on the spot.
Eizenstat concluded his address with an agreed-on declaration that called for concentrating the information on the activities in the various countries with ESLI, under the auspices of a European body – Martin Schultz, president of the European Parliament, gave his backing to the conference – and providing ESLI with real support.
Despite the focus on the needs of survivors and other victims, everyone agreed that the survivors radiated not only frailty and dependence, but strength, life experience, the ability to overcome and move on and understanding of processes and events that must be warned against to avoid recurrence. “We are not beggars,” one of them said at the conference. “Let us help you.”
This article is dedicated to the memory of Prof. Robert Wistrich, who passed away before his time.
Prof. Porat is head of the Kantor Center for the Study of Contemporary European Jewry at Tel Aviv University and chief historian at Yad Vashem.