Op-Ed: Should the killers be the victims’ heirs?

WASHINGTON (Washington Jewish Week) — The Holocaust Era Assets Conference concluded in Prague with a moving program at Terezin and a nonbinding declaration emphasizing that survivors’ needs in these, their last years, should be treated with more urgency than real estate, art or other restitution issues.

Elie Wiesel set the tone brilliantly by asking if the killers should become the victims’ heirs, telling how the killers "stole not only the wealth of the wealthy but the poverty of the poor," and imploring the world to remember the survivors whom we have allowed to suffer too much.

Amazingly, survivors’ needs never appeared on the radar screen at prior international Holocaust-era conferences, but this time, survivors and their children raised their voices and were heard. In Israel, survivors protested; in the United States, the survivors and their children (notably Holocaust Survivors Foundation-USA and Generations of the Shoah International) lobbied members of Congress and wrote articles and letters to draw attention to the needs of aging survivors.

The efforts were successful enough to have changed the dialogue. At first, the topic of aging survivors was not on the conference agenda, then it was added as a postscripted "special session." Ultimately it became the No. 1 issue.

It is about time.

As a member of the official American delegation and the only child of survivors chosen to speak about the concerns of our aging parents from the perspective of the survivor families, my job was to enlighten the world about the issues we face. I was allotted seven minutes.

It is not widely known that about half the Holocaust survivors in the U.S. are living at or below the poverty line and struggling on a daily basis for basic necessities. Though the number of survivors decreases annually, their needs increase and they present unique challenges.

Holocaust survivors are not like other aging Americans. They often have medical conditions that began during World War II. Injuries and illnesses from those years can haunt survivors today. Because of their wartime experiences, they are more likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.

If memory problems arise, the survivor may be forced to relive Holocaust trauma again and again. Each relived episode feels like a fresh stab to the heart. Additionally, as memory goes, the last language learned is the first one lost, so some survivors can no longer speak with their children. These are just some of the problems.

There were many moving speeches at the conference, but specifics were lacking regarding how to solve the residual fallout of the Shoah. There were calls for "heirless" property in Central Europe to be used to fund services for survivors. Poland and Lithuania, two countries with outstanding property claims, are not interested in restituting or compensating Jewish property.

Also, the German property experience had the effect of pitting heirs against needy survivors. The Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany handled property claims in virtual secrecy; that cannot be allowed again.

The controversial Claims Conference 80-20 split — 80 percent to survivors’ needs and 20 percent to education and remembrance — needs to change. As long as there are survivors unable to buy food or medical necessities, they must be the 100 percent priority. Use of victim money for these non-survivor projects must cease until social service needs of all survivors are fully funded.

Nothing was officially acknowledged about the billions of dollars global insurers such as Generali and Allianz and others have retained from Holocaust victims. And what about the banks, manufacturers and governments that participated in this, the greatest theft in history?

To be sure, there were people at the conference who have good intentions, but the problems are enormous and solutions complicated and expensive. Non-survivor organizations in the U.S. may have been well-intentioned, but they did not fully appreciate the situation. It is time to speak directly with survivor families to assess the needs.

We look to the leadership of Stuart Eizenstat and Christian Kennedy, U.S. Reps. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.) and Ileanna Ross-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), and others for help in this late hour.

Hopefully, we can change the rhetoric into reality. Let us not allow the killers to continue to be the heirs of our murdered brethren.

(Esther Toporek Finder of Rockville, Md., is the president of The Generation After and a member of the coordinating council of Generations of the Shoah International. This Op-Ed first appeared in the Washington Jewish Week.)

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