ODESSA, Ukraine (JTA) — In her dilapidated apartment, Larisa Rakovskaya examines a stack of unpaid heating bills. Sick and alone, the 86-year-old Holocaust survivor and widow is preparing for another encounter with the cold, her “worst and only fear.”
Rakovskaya says her hope of staying warm this winter lies with a one-time payment of approximately $3,200 that she may receive from Germany via the Claims Conference following Berlin’s recent decision to include victims of Nazi persecution in the former Soviet Union as beneficiaries of the so-called Hardship Fund. Some 80,000 survivors across the former Soviet Union are expected to qualify for the payouts, half of them in Ukraine, where a crumbling welfare system often leaves the old and disabled to live and die in penury.
Rakovskaya says that once she uses the Hardship Fund payment to pay off the few hundred dollars of debt she owes utilities, she wants to visit Israel for the first time.
“I don’t want to renovate, and I don’t need a boiler. My last wish is to see Jerusalem,” she tells JTA.
Marina, her social worker from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, asks Rakovskaya to “be realistic” and use the money for day-to-day living.
The Claims Conference, which negotiated the expansion of the Hardship Fund with Germany, says the money will have “an enormous impact.” The application process starts in November, and eligible claimants are expected to be approved as quickly as eight weeks afterward, according to Claims Conference spokeswoman Hillary Kessler-Godin. Applications will be processed throughout most of 2013.
JDC, which funds Jewish welfare operations in the former Soviet Union known as Heseds, called the new money a “welcome addition” but cautioned that survivors, as well as other Jews in the region, still need ongoing assistance.
Rakovskaya lives on a $111 monthly government pension in a one-bedroom apartment with her small dog, Chunya. Old newspapers absorb humidity from the broken floor; the brown walls are crumbling. With no hot water, she heats water over an electric stove and then washes over a rusty sink. She has managed to get food and medicine and keep her home heated thanks to support from her local Hesed.
Established in the 1990s, Hesed provides relief, medical services and food to approximately 170,000 Jews in former Soviet countries. JDC’s 2012 budget for welfare and social services in the former Soviet Union comes to $113.5 million. Some of the money comes from the Claims Conference, which funds Hesed programs directed at Holocaust survivors. In 2011, those funds reached approximately $75 million.
Approximately 7,000 Hesed clients live in Odessa, a city with a Jewish population estimated at 40,000. Ukraine has some 360,000 to 400,000 Jews, according to the European Jewish Congress.
Rakovskaya has experienced far worse living conditions. As a girl she had to live with her mother in the catacombs that run under Odessa’s streets. They went underground after Romanian soldiers occupied the city in 1941 as allies of Nazi Germany. Once home to 200,000 Jews, only about 90,000 remained when the Romanians arrived. Most of them were murdered.
Thanks to her father’s non-Jewish last name, Rakovskaya and her Jewish mother were able to slip through the roundups.
Greg Schneider, the executive vice president of the Claims Conference, told JTA that the new Hardship Fund payment is the fruit of 20 years of labor.
During the Cold War, Germany “understandably” resisted compensating victims living behind the Iron Curtain for fear that Soviet regimes would confiscate the money, Schneider said. Since communism collapsed, the Claims Conference has “asked, pushed, pressed, urged and cajoled” Germany to compensate victims living in Eastern Europe just like victims living in the West.
“I think it’s too late, but we’re happy this is finally happening,” he said. “For a Western,” he said, the $3,200 is “the equivalent of receiving a year’s worth of pension.”
Asher Ostrin, the JDC’s director of activities in the FSU, calls the fund “a welcome addition,” but also says "It will not elevate anyone from extreme poverty to middle-class comfort.”
Many of the Holocaust survivors who will receive the one-time payment from Germany will continue to be aided by Hesed, which has many other clients who are not Holocaust survivors.
One of the recipients is Svetlana Mursalova, 56. Once a social worker for Hesed, she suffered a crippling hip fracture that rendered her bedridden and unable to work. She says her two children have no interest in her, leaving her to survive on a monthly disability pension of $109.
“Without the help from Hesed, I would need to choose between food and medicines. I would have died,” she told JTA. “My situation is very painful because I always used to look after myself and others. But you have to stay optimistic.”
On her wall is a portrait of her Siamese cat, Marquis, which she describes as her best friend. Mursalova thought about leaving for Israel, she says, but now that she is unable to walk properly, “leaving is even more difficult than staying.”
Ostrin says many poor Jews resist immigrating to Israel for fear of the unfamiliar and a deep attachment to their apartments — often the only property they managed to keep during and after communism.
Although tens of thousands of Ukrainian Jews require JDC charity to get by, a small number of Jews have become wealthy since the collapse of communism. In recent years they have been involved increasingly in charity and in projects that promote a self-sustainable Jewish life here, according to Eduard Dolinsky, director of the Ukrainian Jewish Committee.
One example is a Jewish kindergarten with 40 pupils and a long waiting list of parents willing to pay the $500 monthly fee — approximately double the national average salary. The money keeps the school running, but also helps fund community services and activities ranging from pottery and aerobics lessons for the elderly to basketball tournaments for teenagers.
Those parents, however, represent “a very thin layer of rich Jews who are unable to tend to the serious needs of the elderly and poor,” Dolinsky says. “Without the generous support of American Jewry, we would face a humanitarian disaster.”
Dolinsky says the new funds secured by the Claims Conference “will not change anything on the fundamental level, but they are important for the recipients and as a form of belated justice.”