TEL AVIV (JTA) – Gita Koifman’s phone rings every day with tales of hardship large and small from needy Holocaust survivors.
One day it is the man who did not have money to pay for the pills he was prescribed after heart surgery. During last summer’s war with Hezbollah it was repeated pleas from an elderly couple who live in a fifth-floor walk-up and could not make it to the bomb shelter.
More recently it was a tearful call from a woman who could not even afford to buy a nice dress for her granddaughter’s bat mitzvah.
All the callers were immigrants from the former Soviet Union, a group that comprises the most poverty-stricken segment of Israel’s estimated 240,000 Holocaust survivors.
They are among those who will benefit from a new $373 million government allocation announced last week.
“We did not get the optimum sum that we could have, but I think we made progress as this really is a historic achievement after so many years of struggle,” said Koifman, who heads a group representing survivors from the former Soviet Union. “This is the first time the government of Israel dealt with the situation of survivors in Israel – in itself an achievement.”
The funding deal came after the government came under intense and embarrassing pressure from Holocaust survivors and organizations.
A previous funding initiative announced with great fanfare by the Olmert government in August had been dismissed by survivors and their advocates as insignificant.
Matters came to a dramatic head this summer when a group of survivors, some of them wearing concentration camp uniforms and yellow stars, marched together with relatives and supporters through the streets of Jerusalem toward the Knesset demanding justice.
Their criticism was fueled by a sense that the Israeli government for decades systematically ignored survivors’ needs and that time was becoming short as survivors age and their needs intensify.
On Oct. 15, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert announced the allocation of the additional money, saying it would help ease the financial burdens of the so-called “second circle” of Holocaust survivors – those who fled the Nazis and became refugees, most of them living out the war and its aftermath in the Soviet Union.
A large number have immigrated to Israel in the past 15 years, swelling the ranks of the neediest survivors.
Olmert called the funding “an important moral step” and said he hoped it would help correct a historical wrong.
“The state never gave those who survived the Holocaust the attention and resources it put into memorializing those who died in the Holocaust,” Olmert said, acknowledging a deep-seated grudge held by survivors in Israel.
Alex Orli, deputy chairman of the Center of Organizations of Holocaust Survivors and himself a survivor, said survivors believed that with the new deal a measure of justice had been found.
“All of Israel’s governments ignored the survivors and failed to care for them,” he said. “After much shouting and protest, the government took responsibility to help survivors of the Holocaust live better. It does not solve everything but it is an important achievement.”
The new allocation adds to the package of benefits for survivors of concentration camps and ghettos, known as first-circle survivors, announced in August. That money is earmarked for survivors who did not receive restitution from the German government or have received minimal funds from Israel.
About two-thirds of the $373 million will be slotted for increased welfare payments to cover all senior citizens in Israel. The rest will be earmarked specifically for second-circle survivors, who were excluded in the original draft of the deal.
In addition to increased welfare payments, the second-circle survivors will be entitled to monthly allowances of between about $40 to $125, calculated according to age and financial need.
The first-circle survivors were granted allowances of $284 a month under the deal made in August. The funds are linked also to their income level and age.
According to the Center of Organizations of Holocaust Survivors, about one-quarter of the some 240,000 survivors in Israel are in a state of financial need. Many are from the former Soviet Union. They usually have no pensions and little or no savings, and are dependent on payments from the National Insurance Institute, Israel’s version of Social Security.
As they age, survivors must deal with the costs that come with health problems. Some say they must choose between buying food and medicine. Others barely have the money to afford wheelchairs or even new eyeglasses or false teeth.
Yossi Katz, a historian at Bar-Ilan University, said the negligence of previous governments supporting survivors can be explained in part by the country’s mind-set up until the past 15 to 20 years.
“Its stance was one of looking after the collective, and that meant infrastructure, transportation and all the issues that dealt with the collective, not the individual,” Katz said.
Most of the money from the landmark 1953 reparations agreement with Germany initially went to national projects, Katz pointed out.
Colette Avital, who chairs the Knesset committee of inquiry on the assets of Holocaust survivors in Israel, said it is hard to excuse the behavior of successive Israeli governments when it comes to survivors.
“Part of it is neglect and part of it is a closing of the eyes and saying, ‘This is not our responsibility,’ ” she told JTA. “There was a sense of, ‘What on earth do they want from us?’ ”
But Avital said the long battle she has helped wage from her helm in the Knesset has paid off. The government, she said, “has admitted long negligence and unfair treatment, and for the first time they did make an effort to look at the whole picture and look for solutions.”
She added that Jews both in Israel and overseas need to realize that there is new urgency because of the survivors’ age.
“To a certain extent we are in a new situation which compels us here and in the Claims Conference to look again at the situation and change priorities to deal with the immediate needs of survivors,” Avital said, “so that at the end of their lives they can live with their dignity.”