It’s a race against time to increase Holocaust survivors’ income

Organization that helps survivors apply for special benefits sees huge increase in requests for assistance

Renee Ghert-Zand is the health reporter and a feature writer for The Times of Israel.

A Holocaust survivor in economic crisis in 2009. Illustrative photo. (photo credit: Edi Israel/Flash90)
A Holocaust survivor in economic crisis in 2009. Illustrative photo. (photo credit: Edi Israel/Flash90)

Last June, the Knesset approved the “National Plan for Aiding Survivors of the Holocaust,” an increase of NIS 1 billion ($290 million) each year in benefits to Israel’s Holocaust survivors. It’s a welcome, but also a necessary, boon for the 200,000 survivors in Israel, especially the one-third of them living in poverty.

Under the new plan, survivors, especially destitute ones, will see their monthly stipends increase significantly. In addition, medical insurance co-payments for drugs will be eliminated for survivors, and spouses of deceased survivors will see their stipends extended beyond the current three years.

The money may be there, and streamlined bureaucratic processes may be built in to the plan, but the question remains as to whether all elderly survivors will be able to easily access the benefits. After all, many reparation payments and allowances that have been available to Holocaust survivors since 1992 have gone unclaimed because of daunting red tape.

“It’s true that the government has gotten better with customer service, but survivors still need help filling out forms and such,” said Aviva Silberman, founder and director of Aviv (Spring) For Holocaust Survivors, a nonprofit organization that assists survivors in accessing benefits due them from Israel’s Finance Ministry, Germany, the Conference on Jewish Material Claims against Germany, the Foundation for the Benefit of Holocaust Victims in Israel, and other agencies.

Aviva Silberman, founder and director of Aviv For Holocaust Survivors. (Courtesy)
Aviva Silberman, founder and director of Aviv For Holocaust Survivors. (Courtesy)

Silberman founded Aviv For Holocaust Survivors, which provides services free of charge, in 2007 after she realized that survivors did not know their rights. Moreover, the people working with and helping them also did not know what pensions and reparation payments survivors were entitled.

“When I was a law student several decades ago, I volunteered in a residence for the elderly. Envelopes would arrive from Germany for the residents who were Holocaust survivors, and because I speak German, I was able to translate the forms and documents and help the survivors apply for their payments,” Silberman said.

“I learned more about this as I continued my studies. There are laws on the books, but survivors didn’t know how to exercise their rights and get what they deserved,” she said.

In fact, there are currently 15 different “rentas,” or reparation payment or allowance programs, available to survivors living in Israel. The fine print as to who is eligible for which payment, and what application forms need to be completed and supporting documents must be provided for each, can be mind-boggling.

That’s where Aviv For Holocaust Survivors’ five lawyers and hundreds of volunteers step in to provide free advice and assistance to the survivors. In seven years, the organization has helped 40,000 survivors realize their rights and access more than NIS 150 million ($40 million) in payments due them from the governments of Israel and Germany.

“We have gotten even busier since the new plan was announced earlier this year. I have eight to ten new clients a day,” said Linda Levy, one of the organization’s volunteers.

Levy, who lives in Hod Hasharon and has no survivors in her family, got involved four years ago after seeing a television news report about how people would exploit Holocaust survivors, sometimes taking fees of up to 40 per cent in return for helping them access the benefits they were entitled to.

Now, she volunteers full-time with Aviv For Holocaust Survivors, manning its hotline, visiting with clients in person and by phone, and staffing one of the organization’s eight Entitlement Centers countrywide (run jointly with the JDC).

“You don’t need a lawyer and you don’t need any languages other than Hebrew and English. You just need to know how to fill out the forms properly,” she said.

Aviv For Holocaust Survivors founder Aviva Silberman consults with a Holocaust survivor. (Courtesy)
Aviv For Holocaust Survivors founder Aviva Silberman consults with a Holocaust survivor. (Courtesy)

Levy herself learned (and continues to learn) how to complete the forms correctly and otherwise help her clients from the Aviv For Holocaust Survivors staff, and from updates and newsletters the organization sends out to its volunteers and to the thousands of professionals who regularly come into contact with Holocaust survivors through their work.

“If you can help a survivor double their monthly income, it can make a huge difference to their quality of life,” Levy said. “They can now fix their windows or install an air conditioner, for instance.”

In the case of Shlomo and Esther Adler of Kfar Sava, Levy was able to actualize an even greater increase.

“We were able to almost triple Esther’s income,” said Levy. “We weren’t able to do the same for Shlomo, because he gets his ‘renta’ from Germany and not Israel. However, we have been able to help translate documents for him and help him apply for some extras.”

Shlomo Adler, 84, readily attributes his and his wife’s improved financial situation to Levy.

“Linda has so much patience and knowledge. She asks me to show her this paper and that paper. I call her up with questions and I send other survivors to her. She never gets tired from this job,” Adler said.

According to Silberman, it is quite common that survivors are afraid to ask for additional benefits, because they are afraid that if they do, they’ll lose what little they already have.

But it turns out that 50 percent of the people that Aviv For Holocaust Survivors helps are due more than what they are currently receiving.

With an increase of 40 percent in requests for assistance this year, the organization is working almost beyond capacity.

“It’s a race against time, because benefits are usually not paid retroactively, and survivors must be alive in order to receive payments,” said Silberman.

Survivors are stepping up to ask for help not only because of heightened outreach to them, but also because they are increasingly realizing that they deserve to live in dignity and comfort in their final years.

“In the past, Holocaust reparations and allowances were considered by many to be ‘dirty money,’” said Silberman.

“But now survivors, so many of them living in poverty, realize they are not helping anyone by refusing the money.”

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