An organization representing American Holocaust survivors wrote to Pope Francis last month to request that the Vatican intercede with Germany in order to secure greater funding for the tens of thousands of survivors living in poverty around the world, but hasn’t yet heard from the Vatican.
“Today, tens of thousands of survivors worldwide are living in or near poverty, and are not receiving the healthcare and income support required to address their unique medical and mental health needs and intolerable living conditions,” wrote David Schaecter, the president of the Holocaust Survivors’ Foundation USA.
“We are asking you, Your Holiness, to intervene directly to persuade today’s Government of the Federal Republic of Germany to provide the promised, owed and much needed compensation which was first promised by Chancellor Adenauer in the 1950s ‘to care for survivors until their last breath.’” Despite promises, the plight of survivors is simply not being properly met, Schaecter asserted, adding that half of Holocaust survivors in the United States and throughout the world “exist below or near” the poverty line and are “forced to tragically suffer, and sadly die, in poverty.”
Around 45,000 survivors in Israel live below the poverty line, according to the Foundation for the Benefit of Holocaust Victims in Israel’s 2014 annual assessment. That report also found that an increasing number of these elderly citizens are forced to choose between food or medicine.
The Holocaust Survivors’ Foundation has not yet received any response from the Vatican despite more than a month passing since it emailed the letter to Vatican Secretary of State Pietro Parolin, asking him to pass it on to the pontiff.
In early June, the group appealed directly to German Chancellor Angela Merkel in an open letter in The Washington Post, calling the current system for distributing reparations and aid “highly flawed, with impossible bureaucratic barriers, and diversion of funds for non-survivor purposes.”
Germany, the group entreated, should begin to channel funds directly to survivors and service organizations by way of the American government, presumably instead of through such intermediaries such as the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, which is the primary interlocutor between world Jewry and Berlin on issues of restitution.
“Survivors have been banging our heads against the wall to expose the devastating suffering that tens of thousands of our brothers and sisters are enduring today because of the failures of the existing institutions to demand that Germany provide for 100 percent of their physical and mental health care needs, which the Nazi German regime caused,” Holocaust Survivors’ Foundation secretary Leo Rechter told the Post.
“We have appealed to the Claims Conference, the Jewish leadership, to Congress, to Chancellor Merkel herself.
The lies and excuses we have been told to justify massive suffering by survivors are unconscionable.
After the pope’s recent strong statement about the world powers’ desertion of the Jews during WWII, we believed he would agree that it is unacceptable that survivors should be suffering so when the resources exist to provide for proper care.”
Last December, the Claims Conference announced that it would increase its allocations to organizations tending to elderly survivors by 21 percent in 2015, with $365 million earmarked for disbursement.
According to the Claims Conference, the funds come from increased German restitution payments as well as private foundations, the Austrian government and a settlement with Swiss banks. In May 2014, the restitution body reached an agreement with Germany securing $1 billion in funding through 2017.
The Holocaust Survivors’ Foundation believes that such deals are insufficient. In their letter, the organization’s leaders wrote that while Germany negotiates “total sums every few years that give the appearance of being generous increases, they are in fact rationed to the point of leaving most survivors without necessary care.”
“Is it sufficient?” asked Colette Avital, chairwoman of the Center Organizations of Holocaust Survivors in Israel, regarding increases in German funding. “By all means no, and the representatives of the Claims Conference have asked in the past months time and again for an additional increase – but were refused.”
Avital, who said she was not familiar with the US organization, added that she didn’t understand why the group felt the need to ask for papal intercession, instead stating that “their appeal should be directed to Chancellor Merkel.”
The American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants, which represents many American survivors, declined to comment, while the Claims Conference declined to respond.
A Vatican spokesman told the Post that he would look into the matter but as of press time had not issued a statement.
Controversy recently erupted over the termination of Claims Conference ombudsman Shmuel Hollander, who claimed that he was fired over a 2013 report in which he asserted that tens of millions of dollars in fraudulent claims paid out by the organization were facilitated by severe management failings. Chairman Julius Berman strongly denied the accusations, counter-asserting that Hollander’s office had cost the organization too much money.
While the Holocaust Survivors’ Foundation has been an outspoken critic of the Claims Conference in recent years, Israel Arbeiter – a member of the group’s board whose name was on Schaecter’s papal letter – wrote to the New York Jewish Week on Wednesday together with two other survivor leaders to state that they “proudly stand in support of the Claims Conference as it works tirelessly for every single elderly victim of Nazi persecution.”
“The Claims Conference has negotiated over $70 billion for survivors, but most importantly over $4 billion just in the last five years. It is the voice for survivors who live in poverty, who have no winter fuel in Eastern Europe, who are facing destitution in Greece, who have used up their savings in the United States, and who need more home care than their home governments can give,” Arbeiter wrote.