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Thousands of Survivors Still Struggling to Obtain Benefits Print E-mail

By Ruth Eglash
April 21, 2009

ImageThousands of Holocaust survivors in Israel have yet to claim additional state benefits, despite improved legislation and a push from the government over the past two years to better their living conditions, The Jerusalem Post has learned.

According to statistics presented on Monday by the Welfare and Social Services Ministry, which has worked closely with the Prime Minister's Office, the Treasury and the Pensioners Affairs Ministry to reach out to survivors not benefiting from previously allocated Holocaust restitution, fewer than half of the estimated 243,000 survivors in Israel receive state assistance.

In addition, a law approved in March 2008 aimed at increasing the number of survivors eligible for government benefits by some 8,000 - mostly immigrants from the former Soviet Union whose status as survivors had not been previously recognized - has failed to reach most of those it seeks to help. Only 2,300 survivors have obtained these additional rights, the Post was told. Non-profit groups working with survivors in Israel believe that more than a third of them live below the poverty line.

"We have not managed to track down the rest," a spokeswoman for Welfare and Social Services Minister Isaac Herzog admitted, adding that one of the aims of a new government information center opened two months ago was to find these people and distribute the new government pension.

"The situation [regarding Holocaust survivor's rights] has been very confusing and complicated up until now," said Doron Cohen, director of Bynet Semech, a private company that the government has hired to run the new information center and hot line, which can be reached by dialing *9444.

"[Then-prime minister] Ehud Olmert decided that the entire process needed to be streamlined. In the past survivors had to pay privately for lawyers to find out how to get what was owing to them," Cohen said.

Until the information center opened in February, Holocaust survivors seeking to understand their rights or verify their eligibility for certain discounts had to suffer the bureaucracy of one of four bodies distributing survivor funds: The Claims Conference on Material Claims Against Germany, the Department of Rehabilitation for Holocaust Survivors in the Finance Ministry, BEG - the German Federal Indemnification Law, and the Foundation for the Benefit of Holocaust Survivors in Israel.

"Survivors would have to fill out long, complicated forms to prove they matched the criteria and then would be forced to wait for a long time to get an answer," explained Cohen, adding that the new information center had been receiving between 1,000 and 3,000 calls a day from survivors or their relatives.

However, NGOs that work with survivors have criticized the center, saying it is not working fast enough to provide the information people need to live out their final years in dignity.

"I don't know anyone who has received real help from the center," Tamara Mor, director of the Association for Immediate Help to Holocaust Survivors, which provides hot meals, home visits and other essentials to some 900 survivors, said on Monday. "Some people have received the forms but it seems like it will still take a long time before they get answers."

The charity received an additional 1,000 requests for assistance during Pessah, but its own financial situation meant it could only reach a fraction of those in need, she said.

"Many had already been turned away by other food aid charities because they are not registered with social services," Mor said, highlighting that her organization assesses its clients based on their needs, and not on their past. "Holocaust survivors are proud people. Most of them worked all their lives and are not used to asking others for help."

A spokeswoman for pensioners' rights group Ken Lazaken said that while the new information center was a step in the right direction, the bureaucracy and lengthy waiting time was off-putting for many survivors.

"How can they expect us to make sense of the past 40 years of mess in only two months?" responded Cohen. "We know there are still problems with the process, but I hope that the situation will only improve now that we are coordinating it efficiently."

He highlighted that work had already started with the Jewish Agency and Sherut Leumi (National Service) to visit survivors' homes and help them fill out the necessary paperwork. Also, Cohen said that forms could be downloaded from the Prime Minister's Office Web site, www.pmo.gov.il.

In the meantime, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said at Monday's cabinet meeting that he planned to reallocate some NIS 30 million to subsidize medical supplies for survivors.

"We will not forget the survivors," he told the ministers, adding, "I am glad that we have found a solution to this vital need of Holocaust survivors who live among us. It is appropriate that they should live out their lives in honor and in health.

"In the final reckoning, the State of Israel is the answer and the key to ensuring the existence of the Jewish People, to ensuring its security as well as its welfare and the welfare of the survivors," the prime minister said. 

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