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Holocaust survivors decry Israeli stipend proposal

Protesters, many calling to mind Nazi atrocities, dismiss the additional $20 offered by Olmert.

August 06, 2007|Richard Boudreaux | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — Hundreds of angry Holocaust survivors, some wearing yellow Stars of David like those the Nazis forced Jews to wear, marched on a sweltering Sunday afternoon to demand an increase in a supplementary stipend amounting to $20 a month that Israel's government has offered them.

The rare public protest was an embarrassment for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who had announced the extra payments last week in response to concerns about poverty among the 240,000 survivors who live in Israel. At Sunday's Cabinet meeting he called the issue "sensitive and painful" because the protesters were invoking images of Nazi atrocities.

With placards and T-shirts reading, "The Holocaust is still here" and "Forgive us for surviving," men and women in their 60s, 70s and 80s, many of them frail, labored through a five-block route from the parliament building to Olmert's office.

Children, grandchildren and other supporters joined the "March of the Living," which drew at least 2,500 people.

"How can the government spend all these billions to pay off its external debt?" asked Moshe Solomon, who was captured by the Nazis in Greece. "What about the moral debt that this government and its predecessors owe the people standing here and those who could not make it?"

Six million Jews were killed by the Nazis during World War II. Hundreds of thousands who survived concentration camps, many suffering physical and psychological damage, came to Israel after its founding in 1948.

Many survivors receive between $240 and $1,390 per month, which includes aid from the government and reparations from Germany and other sources.

That aid, however, is not enough to pay for medicine, psychological treatment and in some cases food. Government officials say about 80,000 of Israel's Holocaust survivors live below the poverty line.

But only recently have the survivors begun to assert themselves.

"Years ago people were still living the trauma and kept their heads down. The young survivors were busy," said Shmuel Reinish, 70, a leader of the movement who spoke at the demonstration. "But now the waters have reached our heads and we are about to drown."

In announcing last week's offer, Olmert said his government was "correcting a 60-year-old blight." He said it would distribute $28 million in new stipends among 120,000 needy survivors, broadening the pool of beneficiaries to include some Jews who were not in camps but suffered through World War II in places such as Russia.

The largest organization of survivors dismissed the plan as derisory, saying it worked out to 83 shekels, about $20, per person per month.

With about 35 survivors dying a day, Reinish said, many would not get even that much from the stipend fund, which is to be built up over the next four years.

Olmert's aides later announced that the plan was being revised and more money would be forthcoming. But Sunday's march went ahead anyway.

"Over 60 years ago we were murdered and robbed by the Nazis and those who helped them," Miriam Yahav, a survivor of the Auschwitz and Treblinka camps, told the gathering. "Years later, we the surviving few who live in Israel are being robbed again by our own government."

Hours before the march, Olmert complained in the Cabinet meeting that the protest was "politically motivated." He said a newspaper photo showing a protester in a concentration camp uniform had degraded an honest debate about how to aid the survivors.

He promised to meet Wednesday with representatives of survivors' groups and the heads of government ministries to find the "best, fairest and most just solution."

Speaking on Israeli radio, Welfare Minister Isaac Herzog said: "We have no desire to quarrel with people who have lived through the worst nightmare of mankind's history."

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