NEW YORK — For decades now, the plight of thousands of Holocaust survivors throughout the world has been getting worse.
Fully recognizing the moral imperative of not abandoning these victims of Nazi persecution, Vice President Joe Biden recently announced a new multi-pronged initiative of the Obama administration to address the pressing contemporary medical and social needs of the men and women who were mercilessly persecuted by Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich and its accomplices.
More than 68 years after Allied troops liberated the German death and concentration camps, in which millions of European Jews were murdered, many of those who survived live precariously in dire circumstances.
The youngest child survivors of the Holocaust are today in their late 60s and early 70s, and those who emerged from the camps as adults or adolescents are in their 80s and 90s. They are more often than not in failing health. As World Jewish Congress President Ronald S. Lauder has emphasized, assisting them is an “urgent need.”
Deprived of the safety net of the families and communities that were destroyed, an appallingly large number — between a quarter and one third of the survivors in the United States and Israel, and a far greater proportion of those in Eastern and Central Europe — also live at or below the poverty line.
The meager reparations that many, but by no means all, survivors receive from Germany are utterly inadequate to enable them to live their declining years with even a modicum of comfort, let alone security. They are all too often forced to decide between buying food or medication, whether to heat their homes in the winter or get their glasses fixed.
To be sure, they have not been without champions. Greg Schneider, executive vice president of the Conference of Material Claims Against Germany, more commonly known as the Claims Conference, has long been a staunch and highly effective advocate on their behalf. Earlier this year, following negotiations with the Claims Conference spearheaded by former U.S. Deputy Treasury Secretary and Under Secretary of State Stuart E. Eizenstat, the German government agreed to provide close to $1 billion for desperately needed home care for survivors.
Since 1998, U.S. District Judge Edward R. Korman of the Eastern District of New York has mandated the distribution of millions of dollars to needy survivors from the $1.25 billion settlement with Swiss banks accused of retaining and concealing funds belonging to Holocaust victims; Jewish social services agencies such as Self Help Community Services have dedicated themselves for decades to providing desperately needed support for the erstwhile victims of Nazi German; and the Baltimore-based Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation has just given the Claims Conference a $4 million grant to provide emergency assistance for survivors in North America.
On the whole, however, large numbers of survivors still fall between the cracks. Accounts of elderly survivors suffering from debilitating illnesses who do not receive adequate care are heartbreaking. So is the realization that society as a whole, including much of the organized Jewish community in the United States, has failed to adequately step forward to meet the needs of survivors who go hungry, or are cold.
At the conclusion of the June 2009 Holocaust Era Assets Conference in Prague, representatives of 46 governments emphasized “the special social and medical needs of all survivors and strongly support both public and private efforts in their respective states to enable them to live in dignity with the necessary basic care that it implies.”
To their credit, President Barack Obama and Biden have now undertaken to implement these sentiments.
Addressing a meeting of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 10, Biden said that the Obama administration will “appoint a special envoy to the Department of Health and Human Services charged with the mission to reach out across federal agencies to help find the kind of support that nonprofits need to effectively deliver services like home care, transportation, meal delivery and other services to these survivors living in poverty.
“This will make the government more responsive to a Hungarian survivor in the Bronx who needs a wheelchair or the elderly woman with memories of Warsaw ghetto who needs a ride to the doctor.”
This alone is welcome news. Internationally oriented organizations such as the Claims Conference need to balance the competing needs of survivors across the globe.
Sadly, it is cold comfort for survivors living in Brooklyn or South Florida to be told that the circumstances prevailing in Latvia or Ukraine are more desperate than theirs.
The new Health and Human Services special envoy will presumably focus primarily, if not exclusively, on ways to alleviate the misery and despair individual survivors in the United States are forced to confront on a daily basis. The envoy’s mandate will certainly include making sure that survivors and the organizations that serve them are able to access all available federal and other services and resources.
Biden went on to say that the other elements of this initiative would include “a new partnership through AmeriCorps to bring together volunteers with community-based organizational skills that support local Nazi victims living in isolation and poverty” as well as “public-private partnership opportunities with foundations, nonprofits and private sectors to increase the resources available to support these survivors and their unmet needs.”
The administration’s initiative comes in the wake of a bipartisan congressional measure, the Responding to Urgent needs of Survivors of the Holocaust (RUSH) Act, intended to add Holocaust survivors to the list of groups with the “greatest social need” that are eligible for help under the Older Americans Act.
Perhaps the most promising aspect of Biden’s proposals is that they are eminently feasible.
They are not a panacea — nothing is or can ever be. But if promptly carried out with the unified support and participation of all who believe that the men and women who lived through the Holocaust have suffered enough, they could ease the lot of thousands of survivors in a meaningful way.
(Menachem Z. Rosensaft teaches about the law of genocide and war crimes trials at the law schools of Columbia, Cornell and Syracuse universities.)