Many aging survivors of the Holocaust of World War II marked Israel’s memorial day for the victims of the Nazis with increasing anger toward the agency that is supposed to be helping them.
The annual Holocaust Heroes and Martyrs Remembrance Day began yesterday at sundown with a ceremony at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, Israel’s official Holocaust memorial authority.
For more than five decades, the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany — better known as the Claims Conference — has been the central channel for billions of dollars in restitution and reparations payments from Germany to Jewish victims of the Third Reich.
Today, 63 years after Allied troops freed the emaciated prisoners who survived the Nazi death camps, the agency has become the target of increasingly strident criticism. Some survivors charge it with amassing excessive wealth in their name while forgetting the very people it is meant to serve, many of whom are growing old in poverty.
More than anything, critics say far too much money is going to projects like Holocaust museums and broader Jewish causes instead of to making survivors’ lives better in the time they have left.
“Open your pocketbooks now. Don’t worry about monuments. You’ll have plenty left for monuments when the survivors are gone,” said Jack Rubin, 79, of Boynton Beach, Florida.
Rubin is a retired Connecticut furrier born in what was then Czechoslovakia. In 1944, when he was 15, the Nazis sent him and his family to the Auschwitz concentration camp. After the train arrived at the camp in southern Poland, he was separated from his parents and grandparents and never saw them again. US troops liberated him in the spring of the following year.
“There is nothing more important than the Holocaust survivors, and in the few years they have left they should live in dignity,” Rubin said. “That is all I ask of the Claims Conference.”
About 6 million Jews were killed by German Nazis and their collaborators in World War II. Today, there are an estimated half a million Holocaust survivors worldwide, roughly half in Israel and the rest mainly in the US and the countries of the former Soviet Union. At least tens of thousands of them are poor. For these people, the Claims Conference is the primary — and sometimes the only — address for aid.
The current dispute involves money the group received from selling unclaimed Jewish properties in the former East Germany, which it inherited by law after Germany was reunited.
Today, the Claims Conference says it distributes around US$120 million a year from that money. Eighty percent goes to survivors and institutions that help them, and the rest goes to Holocaust education and memorials like Yad Vashem.
But the group’s critics say it must urgently put aside everything else and focus solely on making survivor’s lives better before time runs out.
Responding, Reuven Merhav, a retired Israeli Mossad agent and diplomat who now serves voluntarily as one of the Claims Conference’s top officials, said educating the world about the Holocaust is no less urgent than direct aid to survivors — it has to be done while survivors are still around to tell their story.
“The money spent on education and commemoration makes a great impact, and would not make much of a difference to anyone if it were split among tens of thousands of survivors,” Merhav said.