In Israel, some Holocaust survivors face hard times

A number of aging survivors, poor, with no family, or none willing to help, are finding it hard to get by. A few lucky ones are cared for at a shelter in Haifa. 'We deserve more,' says one.

July 06, 2010|By Edmund Sanders, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Haifa, Israel —

Tucked into the hillside of this ancient port city is a sight few Israelis ever imagined they'd see in the Jewish state.

It's a simple, small housing shelter, converted from an old office building and not unlike ones for the homeless, drug addicts or battered women.

This facility, however, has a different clientele: Holocaust survivors.

The dozen or so residents are among those who more than six decades ago survived concentration camps or spent years as refugees fleeing Nazi persecution during World War II.

In Israel, many built prosperous, productive lives. But in old age, they've ended up broke, alone, sick or homeless, facing a painful choice between buying medicine or paying rent. Most have no remaining family; others have relatives unable or unwilling to help.

It's a pleasant enough shelter, with sunny rooms, free medical care, hot meals and plenty of smiling volunteers. Funded by the Helping Hands to Friends charity, it's the first of its kind in Israel, and a new 80-bed wing, currently under construction, has a waiting list of 1,800.

Despite the gratitude of those living here, there's also a sense of bitterness and betrayal. Residents ask how a nation established in part on their suffering could turn its back on them now.

"We helped found the state of Israel and built it," said Miryam Kremin, 88, who escaped a Polish ghetto as a teenager, leaving behind parents whom she never saw again. "They should make our final years better."

Kremin did not apply for Holocaust reparations until recently because she and her husband, an engineer, didn't need the money. But after he died, Kremin said she depleted most of her savings on rent and prescriptions.

Her room at the shelter has a homey feel, with a pink-flowered bedspread and purple curtains. But she says this isn't how she envisioned retirement. "We've been through so much," she said. "We deserve more."

Retired house painter Joseph Kunstlich, 83, survived the Buchenwald and Auschwitz concentration camps by mining coal, working assembly lines and doing whatever else the Nazis ordered him to do. Still haunted by nightmares upon arrival in the Holy Land, he volunteered to fight in the 1948 war for Israeli independence.

Unlike others at the shelter, Kunstlich never had a problem establishing his claim for Holocaust reparations. "You can't fake this," he said, holding out a forearm tattooed with a Nazi-issued ID number.

But medical bills absorb half his compensation of about $900 a month, and an attorney, he said, swindled much of the rest. "The attorney went to jail for 12 years, but I got nothing," he said.

Carol Spiegelman, 70, spent his early childhood in a Romanian-controlled work camp. He went broke two years ago and found himself sleeping in the Tel Aviv airport. Because he has no documentation to prove he lived in the camp with his parents, his reparations claims have been rejected.

It never mattered before because he supported himself as a refinery worker. Now divorced with no children, he lives in a room barely big enough for a twin bed, two small tables and a TV, sharing a bathroom down the hall.

"God has punished me too harshly, I think," he said.

Poverty among Holocaust victims in Israel is something of a dirty little secret. An estimated 70,000 survivors — one-third of those living in Israel — don't have enough money to make ends meet, victims support groups say. The survivors show up in soup kitchens or government welfare agencies.

Tsipora Yaffe, 74, who escaped the 1941 Odessa massacre that killed her father, collects recyclable bottles from trash bins and off the street. "It's humiliating," Yaffe said, who does not live at the shelter. "But I close my eyes and do it."

In a country where the Holocaust still shapes social and political debate, such stories stir anger. Advocates for survivors say that in the zeal to "never forget" those who died, the needs of survivors are being forgotten.

"As a member of Knesset and a citizen, I am ashamed of how the Jewish state has treated Holocaust survivors," lawmaker Moshe Gafni, chairman of the Knesset Finance Committee, said after the government recently delayed implementation of expanded medical subsidies for survivors. "The treatment is disgraceful. [It] shames me and should shame all of us."

Shimon Sabag, a soft-spoken former food vendor who founded the shelter, said he was stunned to discover how many Holocaust victims live in poverty.

"I always thought these people had been taken care of," said the father of two, who started the Helping Hands charity — "Yadezer" in Hebrew — with a $1-million settlement he received after breaking his back in a work-related car accident.

He began with a soup kitchen in Haifa and immediately noticed how many people in line had tattooed numbers on their arms.

"It gave me shivers," he said. From there, his group began offering home food delivery and free medical and dental care to survivors.

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