Behind the Headlines: Spotlight on Latvian Survivors Reveals Other Assistance Efforts

Holocaust survivors in Latvia were thrust into the spotlight last week when they received the first payments from a Swiss fund created to help needy survivors.

But with a lot less fanfare, other groups have been quietly helping this small community of survivors.

For the past five to six years, a group known as the Jewish Survivors of Latvia in the United States has been distributing $100 to each survivor in Latvia twice a year.

“We have many people who cannot afford to give anything because they are immigrants, yet everybody tries to help,” said Steven Springfield, the group’s president.

Springfield, 74, who lives in Roslyn Heights, N.Y., helped form the organization of Holocaust survivors and Latvian immigrants in the mid 1980s. It now includes more than 400 families.

In 1989 — nearly 45 years after the end of World War II — Springfield and other survivors returned to Latvia to reconnect with the community and pay their respects to family members who had died.

“When we first started coming there were 140 survivors,” he said. “Now there are only 80 left. Most have passed away, and the rest live in extremely difficult circumstances.”

Springfield, who lived in a Latvian ghetto before being deported to a concentration camp, was on hand at a ceremony in the Latvian capital of Riga last week when the first recipients of the Swiss Holocaust Memorial Fund accepted their $400 checks.

Riva Shefere, 75, said it was “a pure coincidence” that she was the first to receive the payment.

“It’s also a coincidence that I stayed alive,” said Shefere, who had escaped death by sneaking away from a column of labor camp inmates being marched off to be shot. She spent the rest of the war in hiding.

As the first recipient, Shefere became an instant celebrity. After news reports quoted her as saying she wanted to buy a washing machine, but that the sum wouldn’t cover it, three Americans have come forward to offer to buy her one, according to Gideon Taylor, assistant executive vice president of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

The memorial fund was established in February by Switzerland’s three largest banks amid allegations that the Swiss banks were hoarding the wealth of Holocaust victims.

The fund’s board agreed in July to earmark an $11 million initial distribution to Jewish Holocaust survivors in Eastern and Central Europe, each of whom is slated to get a total of $1,000.

The JDC, which organized the Nov. 18 ceremony at Riga’s Jewish community center, is overseeing the fund’s disbursements, which will include an additional $600 check for each Latvian survivor.

At the spacious three-story classical building that had once housed the Riga Jewish Theater, the recipients had mixed responses.

Yevgenia Barowska, 75, who spent much of the war in a concentration camp, called the $400 check “insulting.”

But while she and other survivors criticized the sum, other elderly recipients voiced satisfaction.

“Swiss financial organizations today are recognizing their historical responsibility,” said Margers Vestermanis, 72, who spent part of the war in labor camps and, after escaping, hid in a forest until liberation.

Meer Slavin, 83, who was unable to attend the ceremony because he is paralyzed and homebound, said during an interview at his home, “Any help we can get can make a difference.”

Springfield refers to the survivors living in Latvia as “triple victims” – - victimized first by the Nazis, then by the Soviet regime, and again, following Latvian independence, by terrible economic conditions.

Nearly all of the survivors live on monthly pensions of about $80.

Survivors in Latvia also are looking to the German government to provide compensation.

“We don’t want compensation from Switzerland, but we do want Germany to compensate us,” said Shefere, one of the few survivors of the Riga Ghetto, whose painful memories prevented her until last year from returning to the site of the former ghetto — now a residential neighborhood.

Representatives of Latvian Holocaust survivors have been negotiating with Germany for several years in an effort to receive reparations for their suffering during the war, according to Alexander Bergman, chairman of the Latvian Jewish Society of Former Prisoners of Ghettos and Concentration Camps.

Germany has paid more than $54 billion in compensation to Holocaust survivors since World War II, but those living in Soviet-bloc countries were unable to apply for compensation during the Cold War.

Bergman recently joined a delegation from the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, which is currently negotiating with German officials for compensation payments to Holocaust survivors in Eastern Europe.

Several years ago, Bergman toured 10 German cities to discuss the impoverished situation of the Latvian Holocaust survivors.

As an unintended result of his efforts, private German citizens began channelling funds through Christian interfaith groups to help the Latvian survivors.

The aid has been distributed to individual survivors in Latvia, to social service programs serving their needs and to programs helping 28 Christians who risked their lives to save Jews during the Nazi occupation of Latvia.

Bergman described this aid as the “good will of kind people,” but added that “private individuals are taking the government’s responsibility upon themselves” and that efforts would continue to force Germany to pay restitution.

For the head of the U.S.-based support group, the role of Latvian expatriates has been critical.

“For so many years, nobody raised a finger for the Holocaust survivors,” said Springfield. “We were the only ones who used to come year after year.”

His organization has also been distributing small sums to Jewish war veterans and to righteous gentiles who helped save Jews during the Holocaust.

Some funding also goes toward soup kitchens and “Meals on Wheels” programs in Latvia, which are run in partnership with the JDC.

The undertaking has yielded nearly $300,000 in distributions since the early 1990s, said Springfield.

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