NEW YORK (Nov. 11)
A 75-year-old Latvian Jew who narrowly escaped death by fleeing a Nazi labor camp will be the first Holocaust survivor to receive payment from a Swiss fund created earlier this year.
Riva Sefere’s receipt of a $400 check at a ceremony scheduled for Nov. 18 in the Latvian capital of Riga will end months of speculation and questions over who would receive payments and when they would be disbursed.
The Holocaust Memorial Fund was established in February by Switzerland’s three largest banks to aid needy survivors worldwide. It is led by a board comprised of Swiss, American Jewish and Israeli officials.
Some 80 Latvian Jewish survivors will be the first recipients because “virtually none of these people have received any compensation for their suffering during the Holocaust,” said Gideon Taylor, assistant executive vice president of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.
Sefere, who was interned in a Latvian labor camp during the war, sneaked away from a column of laborers being marched off to be shot and then spent the rest of the war in hiding.
She became a French teacher after the war. Now she and her husband live on two monthly pensions totaling about $160.
Other Latvian survivors who will receive checks next week include:
Yacov Barkan, 68, who hid in a basement for three years after escaping the liquidation of the remaining Jewish residents in his hometown. He is a professor at Riga University.
Yevgenia Barowska, 75, who spent much of the war in a concentration camp in Latvia.
Margers Vestermanis, 72, who is director of the Jewish Museum’s documentation center in Riga, spent part of the war in labor camps and, after escaping, hid in a forest until liberation.
They, like Sefere, never received any restitution for what they experienced during the war.
Each of the Latvian recipients will receive an additional check for $600 at a later date.
Other Holocaust survivors in Eastern and Central Europe will soon be receiving checks for up to $1,000 from the Swiss fund.
The fund was created amid allegations that the Swiss banks were hoarding the wealth of Holocaust victims. The Swiss National Bank recently contributed to the fund, bringing its total value to about $187 million.
After months of delays, the distribution of the first checks was made possible after the fund transferred $11 million Monday to World Jewish Restitution Organization officials in Jerusalem.
Fund officials said in a statement that the transfer took place after the WJRO presented its plan to “set up a comprehensive system to support Holocaust survivors in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union through local communities and organizations.”
The JDC, which already has an extensive network of support services for survivors in Eastern and Central Europe, was designated by the WJRO to help distribute the payments.
The WJRO, which is headed by World Jewish Congress President Edgar Bronfman and includes the Jewish Agency for Israel and other international Jewish groups, spearheaded international efforts to get the Swiss to confront their wartime past.
The fund’s executive board agreed in July to earmark an $11 million initial distribution to Jewish Holocaust survivors.
In September, Jewish officials turned over to Swiss authorities the names of some 32,000 Holocaust survivors, 12,000 of whom were eligible for the initial round of payments.
The first group of recipients has been limited to Jews living in former Soviet bloc countries — the so-called “double victims” who suffered under both Nazism and communism and never received reparations from the German government.
The survivors’ average age is 80, and many are living in dire poverty.
WJRO officials approved a blueprint last week for allocating the remaining portion of the Swiss fund — over and above the $11 million already approved – – that will be distributed to Jewish survivors.
The fund’s executive board is expected to ratify those allocations in January, according to WJC Executive Director Elan Steinberg.
Not all of the fund’s assets will be distributed to Jewish survivors. About 10 percent of the fund will be set aside to help non-Jewish victims of the war, such as Catholics, Gypsies and homosexuals.
Officials representing those groups have said their payments will take longer to distribute because they are not as well-organized as the groups representing Jewish survivors.