BUDAPEST, Hungary (Sep. 23)
In a matter of weeks, needy Holocaust survivors in Eastern and Central Europe will begin to feel the first tangible results of Switzerland’s attempt to make amends for its wartime past.
But among those who have been designated to receive payment from Switzerland’s Holocaust Memorial Fund, the news that they will soon be receiving a check has been greeted with deep skepticism, bitterness and growing impatience.
“Nothing can compensate us for what we’ve suffered,” says Jozsef Banyai, an 83- year-old who subsists on a $100 monthly pension after losing his parents and two sisters in Auschwitz and spending four years of forced labor in Ukraine.
“But if there’s some money, then just give it instead of talking about it.”
For the oldest and neediest among the designated recipients, the payout – - approximately $1,000 — may already be too late.
In Budapest, with an estimated 20,000 to 25,000 survivors, four to five per day are said to be dying.
After managing to survive the Holocaust, elderly Jews now suffer the indignity of another struggle for survival, this time economically. Their paltry pensions barely keep pace with inflation, but they nonetheless cling to their pride.
“It’s humiliating that our lives have become so devalued,” says Maria Hirschler, 77, whose home in suburban Budapest was looted and bombed during the war.
“Now I’m a beggar — financially, but not in my heart.”
Hirschler, a former factory comptroller, lives with her daughter in a cramped, rundown apartment in an increasingly dangerous neighborhood. A mugger broke her arm a few years ago while stealing her purse.
Nowadays, she resorts to saving leftovers from her free Monday-through-Saturday lunches she receives from communal sources so she has enough to eat on Sundays.
If compensation had been made sooner, she says, “some of us could have began in a better position.”
Just the same, she welcomes the gesture from Switzerland — as long as she is not seen as having sought it.
“Even if it’s for one, two or five more years, I want to live in more humane conditions. I’m not going to go ask for it, but I’ll accept what I’m due.”
Last week, Jewish officials in New York and Budapest turned over to Swiss authorities the names of some 32,000 Holocaust survivors eligible for the first round of payments from the Swiss fund. Additional names are expected to be presented to the Swiss in the coming weeks.
The handover of the long-awaited lists, drawn up by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee from names supplied by field workers in Eastern and Central Europe, caps months of deliberations and disagreements between Jewish and Swiss officials — and among various Jewish organizations — about how to distribute the fund.
The move marks the first substantive step toward distributing checks to the first group of recipients — the so-called double victims who suffered under both Nazism and Communism and never received reparations from the German government.
Some 12,000 Jews living in former Soviet bloc countries were originally slated to receive payments in the coming weeks. But that number could grow to 40,000- 55,000 elderly survivors in 15 former Soviet bloc countries.
Rolf Bloch, the president of the Swiss Jewish community who also chairs the executive board of the fund, recently said it was a mere “technicality” to release funds to the larger group of survivors.
Switzerland’s three largest banks created the Holocaust Memorial Fund earlier this year amid allegations that they were hoarding the wealth of Holocaust victims.
The fund now stands at about $116 million. Additional pledges already made by private Swiss companies and the Swiss National Bank would bring the total to some $200 million.
After the first payments are made to survivors in Eastern and Central Europe, the remainder of the fund will be distributed to other survivors — including additional double victims — on the basis of need and age.
For Banyai, money from the Swiss fund may help him avoid a third heart attack.
With it he would fly to Israel to undergo heart surgery and be near his only child, Laszlo, and three young grandchildren in Jerusalem.
“I want to live a little more, for my son,” says the widower of 13 years.
Banyai would not stay in Israel, he says, for fear he would be a burden on his son.
He also says he would not want to relinquish his meager pension, a bulk of which pays for medicine, heating and electricity.
“I worked hard for it,” says the retired courier for the Hungarian state railway.
A man who identifies himself only by his first name, Sandor, talks as if compensation would be more trouble than it is worth.
Peering through his coke-bottle glasses, the 89-year-old insists on partial anonymity “because there is no order nowadays. People are jealous if a Jew has five more grams of bread than someone else.”
Sandor says he cannot help but question the sincerity of the Swiss.
“The old Jews don’t believe in anything because we’ve experienced so much bad in our lives,” Sandor says. “The Swiss are probably going to postpone payment until there are none of us left.”
Even if the payment arrives, he says he won’t know what to do with it.
“Would you make a plan if you were 89 years old?” Sandor asks with a laugh. “I can’t eat $1,000 worth of food. And I certainly didn’t suffer so much to go and make some restaurant owner rich.”
Czech survivors share the skepticism of their Hungarian counterparts regarding the Swiss payment.
Like the other double victims, they suffered under six years of Nazism and more than four decades of communism — and they are wary of grand gestures.
Reflecting the mood of many of the designated recipients, many Czech survivors feel that the payment is too little, too late.
“Many survivors are dying,” says Hanus Schimmerling, 76, “This money won’t help them rebuild their lives. It’s too late. They are too old.”
Schimmerling, who is the chairman of Terezin Initiative, an association of Czech Holocaust survivors, says, “I want the Holocaust to be remembered, but not to be associated with money.”
Adds his wife, Vera, “The youngest of us is about 70 years old, and people are dying too quickly. Besides, there is no compensation for the Holocaust.
“I lost my whole family in the war, including my little sister. And nobody is going to bring these loved ones back to me.”
Oldrich Stransky, 76, whose name appeared on the list along with the Schimmerlings, is also uncomfortable with the idea of anyone attempting to provide compensation for the sufferings of the Holocaust.
“I view it more as a humanitarian gesture than as compensation,” he says.
Stransky spent four years in concentration camps during World War II. The Nazis took his family home, and it was later confiscated by the Czech Communist regime.
He now lives in a modest three-bedroom home in Prague.
“The money wouldn’t change my life very much,” he says. “It would not be enough to make a difference.”
He adds: “It’s too bad that we didn’t get the financial help immediately after the war, when we had no clothes, no place to live and we had to rebuild our lives from scratch.”