NEW YORK (JTA) — Elderly Holocaust survivors are in fear.
Last week the U.S. Justice Department charged employees of the Conference on Material Claims Against Germany, known as the Claims Conference, with participating in a $42.5 million fraud that saw the plunder of two major programs of Holocaust reparations. According to prosecutors, the thefts had been going on for nearly two decades.
At agencies and offices such as ours that deal with the survivor community, the phone calls were emotional and desperate. Of course the reactions reflected the palpable anger and outrage felt by the entire Jewish community.
“How could this happen?” and “How could it have gone on for so long?” were the repeated refrains.
But we were haunted by the questions and concern posed most often. Survivors, in their 80s and 90s, were afraid. For all too many of our fragile remnant of the greatest Jewish tragedy of our time, the present circumstances are one of bleakness and uncertainty. Often a reparations check supplemented by a Social Security payment are all that stand between an elderly survivor and their daily needs — food, medicine, utilities. They were too frightened to be angry. They wanted to know if their slim payments were in jeopardy or what was to be of their applications for restitution funds.
Many knew that following discovery of the fraud at the Claims Conference, payments and applications for the Hardship Fund were suspended for three months. During that period even legitimate applicants in dire need could not receive payments from the fund. There was also a great deal of misinformation, or more precisely a lack of information, which was driving these fears. We needed to assure survivors that the Claims Conference has said repeatedly that their future payments are not at risk. But no, we could not tell them what the full extent of the fraud might reveal and what the ultimate consequences might be.
Our survivors needed answers and assurances. In these tense circumstances, the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants called its National Executive Committee into emergency meeting. It was, of course, important to vent our outrage and demand that those responsible for this catastrophe be held accountable and brought to justice. But the burning issue before us was, what is to be done now? After long discussion, there emerged a sense that an institutional channel to credibly deal with survivors’ fears and complaints was lacking. Simply put, most present agreed, there was no address for redress.
The mood at the meeting was sober and realistic. We knew there could be no quick panacea, but something practical, doable and responsible had to be proposed. From this came the idea of establishing an office of ombudsman within the Claims Conference. By definition, an ombudsman could take on the critical role that the present delicate situation demands — a trusted intermediary who can represent the interests and concerns of the ultimate constituency of the Claims Conference, the survivors of the Shoah. We therefore called for “the Claims Conference to engage an Ombudsman acceptable to the survivor community to advocate on behalf of and represent the interest of the survivors.”
For those present one thing was certain — changes had to be made in the restitution and disbursement process to restore the confidence of shaken Holocaust survivors. An effective ombudsman can be one important element in those changes. But to fulfill this role the ombudsman must be more than a complaint office. He or she must act as an independent agent with a clear mandate allowing for broad authority to remove obstacles to the advancement of constituent rights and interests. The ombudsman can in fact serve as the herald of other necessary changes.
We are under no illusion. The establishment and the effective functioning of the office of an ombudsman is merely a first step. At the same time, it is a categorical affirmation that the central purpose of Holocaust restitution funds is to address the needs, the concerns and the insecurities of the dwindling remnants of the Shoah. We have no choice. We must deal with the realistic fears of survivors today before an even greater and more shameful scandal emerges.
(Elan Steinberg is the vice president of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants.)