Opinion |

Israel’s Decade of Progress for Holocaust Survivors – at the Last Moment

Aviva Silberman
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Holocaust survivors in Israel.
ניצולי שואה. עשרות אלפי ניצולים עדיין חיים בעוני והזמן אוזלHolocaust survivors in Israel.Credit: Daniel Tchetchik
Aviva Silberman

Some 200,000 Holocaust survivors currently live in Israel. For many thousands of them, the past decade saw significant changes in their rights, both here and abroad. During this decade, thousands of Holocaust survivors were saved from a life of barely getting by, and they now live in dignity, by right rather than by charity.

For 27 years I’ve been fighting to improve the lives of Holocaust survivors in Israel. In July 2007, I founded the organization Aviv for Holocaust Survivors with the following vision: Every Holocaust survivor should live in dignity and comfort.

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We’ve helped more than 65,000 Holocaust survivors exercise their rights both in Israel and abroad free of charge, thus improving their lives. Today the organization is at the forefront of efforts for the rights of Holocaust survivors.

During my early years in this field, I got to know the difficulties that Holocaust survivors faced in realizing their rights. They didn’t have information about all their rights, both in Israel and abroad, and ran into bureaucracy and a system deaf to their needs, preventing them from exercising their rights.

I felt their pain at the humiliating treatment they received from the very entities that were supposed to provide them service and support. The state hardened its heart and put them through an obstacle course of humiliation and trouble for every right or benefit they were entitled to by law.

But the last decade saw a welcome change that can be attributed to the spirit that Yair Lapid injected into the Finance Ministry when was minister in 2013 and 2014. He pushed to change the ministry’s priorities and added billions of shekels to the budget of the Holocaust Survivors Rights Authority. A report by the Dorner Committee also played a role, as did a substantial change in the authority’s attitude toward and service to Israeli survivors.

Lapid expanded the number of people entitled to a pension under the Disabled Victims of Nazi Persecution Law, which was enacted in accordance with the Reparations Agreement with Germany. Today it also covers people who fled Western Europe and Germany.

He also equalized the benefits of Holocaust survivors who receive pensions from the Conference on Jewish Material Claims against Germany and those who receive stipends under the Holocaust Survivors Benefits Law. The list of recognized illnesses was expanded, and thousands of survivors received an increased monthly stipend from the treasury.

Lapid also did something else to improve the situation of tens of thousands of survivors who immigrated to Israel after October 1953, the cutoff date for receiving a pension under the Disabled Victims of Nazi Persecution Law. A new track was opened providing an annual grant of 3,975 shekels ($1,150), as well as an exemption from copayments for drugs covered by the national health insurance plan. Granted, this isn’t a monthly stipend, but it’s a significant step for tens of thousands of people who hadn’t been recognized as Holocaust survivors by the state.

The revolution begun by Lapid was continued by Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, who will be remembered for adding thousands of survivors to the list of people receiving stipends. He added a quarterly grant of 2,500 shekels for survivors who receive health pensions from Germany, decided that survivors’ widows or widowers would receive a monthly stipend for the rest of their lives, and expanded the annual grant to include people who fled Morocco, Algeria and Iraq during the Holocaust. Kahlon also strove to continue to improve service and access to rights.

In fact, in recent years, there has been a significant improvement in the Holocaust Survivors Rights Authority’s work. The amount of time needed to process requests has been shortened, the computer system has been upgraded and service has become significantly more efficient.

During the past decade, there was also a significant improvement in the treatment of Holocaust survivors by the Claims Conference, the German government and other governments. The Claims Conference, which is based in the United States, expanded the number of people entitled to pensions under the Article 2 Fund (a quarterly stipend of 1,338 euros) and added a one-time grant of 2,500 euros for survivors whose childhoods were stolen from them and Kindertransport children. It also expanded the criteria for grants from its emergency assistance fund – one-time compensation of 2,556 euros for survivors who don’t receive a monthly stipend.

The German government expanded its list of recognized ghettos, a decision that got thousands more people pensions – both health pensions for some survivors who immigrated after 1953 and hadn’t hitherto received them, and pensions for labor in the ghettos – as well as compensation and a one-time grant from Germany for unforced labor in the ghettos. In recent months, the German government has also agreed with Israel to pay monthly compensation of 100 to 400 euros to Holocaust survivors who receive monthly health pensions from Germany, while various channels for obtaining compensation have been opened in Poland, France and the Netherlands.

There’s no doubt that the lives of thousands of Holocaust survivors have been immeasurably improved over the last decade. But we have an obligation to remember that the job is not yet done.

The average age of Holocaust survivors is 84, and around 14,000 survivors die every year. Many survivors aren’t aware of all the rights they’re entitled to, or have trouble exercising those rights. It’s also important to remember that there are still historical injustices toward Holocaust survivors who immigrated to Israel after 1953, and these must be corrected.

Tens of thousands of Holocaust survivors still live in poverty, and time is running out. We don’t have another decade for improving their situation. What we don’t do for the survivors in the next year will be remembered to our discredit – as a society – forever.

Attorney Aviva Silberman is the founder of the group Aviv for Holocaust Survivors.

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