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Across the Former Soviet Union for Survivors in Ex-soviet Lands, Golden Years Are Difficult Times

February 11, 2004
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For Holocaust survivor Maya Petrova, the fall of the Soviet Union hasn’t been so wonderful.

A retired hospital clerk from Dneprodzerzhinsk, Petrova, 77, is living on a monthly pension of $25 — about the average in her country — with utilities and medicines consuming the bulk of her income. Her biggest dream now is to save enough to repair the roof in the old wooden house her family built in 1911, where she still lives with her husband.

“Thank God, we always lived a decent life. Only lately has it become really bad,” Petrova says.

The fall of communism has brought a cruel paradox to the lives of Holocaust survivors in the Soviet Union. They can now be open about their wartime ordeals as Jewish victims of the Nazis, but in the post-Communist world, they have no government-sponsored Social Security-type system to rely upon when they reach the age of retirement.

The Communist government did not allow the Soviet victims of the Holocaust to receive any compensation from Germany. After the fall of communism, Holocaust survivors in the former Soviet Union became eligible for compensation. But most never lived long enough to get any money.

Decades ago, a Social Security-type program was not all that important to Soviet survivors. They were young and energetic enough to rebuild their lives — quite often in the same places where they survived the occupation and where the rest of their families fell victim to Nazis.

But now, with no meaningful government safety net in place, most of the aging survivors in Ukraine, Russia, Belarus and elsewhere in the former Soviet Union live on or beneath the poverty line.

“Holocaust survivors in the former Soviet Union are among the poorest Jews on earth,” says Steven Schwager, the executive vice president of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, a group that provides a wide array of social services to the population of survivors in the former Soviet bloc.

Many are embarrassed that they cannot live in dignity.

“When I needed to buy a new pair of stockings last month, I had to give up fresh fruits and vegetables from my daily ration for two weeks,” says an 80-year-old survivor from Dnepropetrovsk who identified herself as Maria.

Sonya Khaikina, another survivor from Dnepropetrovsk, says she hasn’t lived this poorly since World War II.

During the war, Khaikina, then a teenager, had to hide from the Nazis, who killed the rest of her family. She spent a few weeks hiding in an abandoned house’s attic on a diet of straw, which later caused her to lose all her teeth.

“Blame it all on my age,” she says, trying to smile. “I got a whole bouquet of diagnoses.”

A retired clerk, Khaikina now receives a monthly government pension of $24 and has no relatives to help her.

Claims Conference officials in New York say there are only about 9,000 Jewish survivors left in the former Soviet Union who meet the strict requirements for lifetime pension set by Germany: those who survived at least 6 months in a concentration camp or spent no less than 18 months in a ghetto or in hiding.

A large portion of them live in Ukraine, home to half the 2.8 million Soviet Jews killed by the Nazis.

Some criticize the German requirements for eligibility as unfair when applied to the Soviet Union, where most ghettos existed for less than 18 months. In fact, about 40 percent of Soviet Jewish citizens killed during the Holocaust died in the first six months of Nazi occupation.

Alexander Gurevich was 14 when he and his family became inmates of a Jewish ghetto in Kharkov.

In December 1941, he narrowly escaped a mass execution at Drobitsky Yar, a ravine on the outskirts of this city in eastern Ukraine, where 15,000 people died.

He escaped from the Kharkov Ghetto after most of the residents — including his mother — already had been killed.

When Gurevich applied for a German pension a few years ago as a survivor of a Nazi ghetto, it turned out he was shy a few weeks of the minimum requirement for former ghetto inmates.

“I think it’s unjust. They should have taken my circumstances into consideration. Had I escaped a few weeks later, then the Nazis should have started killing us later,” he says bitterly.

Survivor advocates argue that different standards should be used to evaluate the remaining survivor population in the former Soviet Union, and Schwager says a broader definition exists: Holocaust victims who fled or lived under occupation.

In the last several years, tens of thousands of needy elderly Jews who do not meet the German requirements for pension eligibility have been benefitting from social and charitable services provided by the Jewish community, mostly through the JDC.

Raisa Bukhman, 85, is among them. Born in Dnepropetrovsk, she was evacuated to eastern Russia before Germany occupied her native city. When she came back after the war, she found out that her grandparents were killed, their heads cut off and buried in the yard of their house.

Today, Bukhman — who worked until retirement at a food store and cafe — is living in a cramped room in a dilapidated old house, the same house she was born in and where her grandparents were brutally murdered.

Utility payments for the small apartment, which doesn’t have a bathroom, consume almost half of her $23 monthly pension. She receives daily hot meals from the local Hesed center, which is run by the JDC.

“Without this help I would have long been gone,” Bukhman says.

The JDC, the primary agency for providing these social services to Jews, gets funding for Hesed’s $60 million annual budget from a number of recent Holocaust-era settlements. The bulk comes from the Claims Conference in the form of grants paid out from proceeds from the sale of unclaimed Jewish properties in former East Germany. The JDC also gets money from the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims and the Swiss banks settlement.

The JDC says it serves about 125,000 survivors in the entire former Soviet Union, a number that includes all those who fall under the broad definition of victims of Nazism.

They receive food, home care, medications, socialization and various supplementary services through a network of 174 JDC-operated Hesed centers that opened in the last decade across the former Soviet Union.

Grigoriy Kolodach, a young director of a JDC Hesed center in Dnepropetrovsk, oversees services to some 7,500 needy Jewish clients, including about 5,000 wartime victims.

“Every person who was born before the war on the territory that fell under German occupation automatically counts here as a Nazi victim,” Kolodach says. “All these people get a special priority from us when it comes to services.”

For victims of Nazism who depend on government aid for survival, the JDC is a lifesaver.

“The aid — I don’t even know how would I live without it,” says Vladimir Tereschenko, 67, a retired construction engineer. “You can’t live on a pension alone.”

The average Jewish senior who gets aid receives about $25 worth per month in services.

Most of the former Soviet republics heavily tax cash aid, so aid to survivors there is channeled through the JDC in the form of social services.

Menachem Lepkivker, the JDC’s representative in eastern Ukraine, says the JDC only is able to provide the bare minimum.

“There is not enough medication, and we could give more food,” he says. “Now many people have to divide the daily lunch they get from Hesed into three parts to live the whole day on it.”

Ironically, though the JDC’s money for these survivors is set to start drying up in seven or eight years, the group believes that the death of Holocaust survivors will shrink the population requiring aid.

Life has improved recently for Khaikina — making it much better than her straw-eating days. She moved to a new Jewish old-age home in Dnepropetrovsk, one of only three such facilities in the former Soviet Union.

Opened two years ago and run with funds from Jewish charities, the state-of-the-art Beit Baruch Assisted Living Facility is home to 50 residents, aged 75 to 98. Most of them are Holocaust survivors.

“I should be happy,” Khaikina says of her new home. “We are getting free soap here. We have hot water around the clock so I can bathe as many times a day as I wish. One should enjoy life in such conditions and never die. But I’m just so tired and cannot enjoy it anymore.”

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