At the age of 89, Holocaust survivor Joseph Friedman is finding it difficult to live alone in Flatbush.
“My wife passed away four years ago and it’s not easy to struggle and manage by myself,” he said. “Without the home attendant, I would not be able to exist.”
The home attendant, Wanda Ortiz, comes five days a week for three hours each day to do the cooking, cleaning and laundry, and to accompany Friedman on the bus when he has to visit the doctor.
“Medicare provided a temporary home care attendant when I came home from the hospital after surgery, but it was only temporary,” he said. “I’m very thankful to have a steady home care attendant.”
The attendant is provided by Selfhelp Community Services with a grant from the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany. As a result of 18 months of negotiations with the Claims Conference, the German government agreed to provide 55 million euros (one euro is equal to about $1.33) to provide homecare to 58,000 Holocaust victims in 32 countries worldwide this year, about 2,000 of whom live in New York. Next year, that figure will double to 110 million euros ($145 million).
The extra money is expected to ensure that as people like Friedman age and require additional help, Selfhelp will have the money to increase the hours of homecare up to 25 hours a week, if needed.
Currently, Selfhelp receives nearly a million dollars to provide home care services to 499 survivors in the city and Nassau County, according to Elihu Kover, the group’s vice president for Nazi victim services.
The money was provided for two programs: housekeeping services that survivors are unable to do themselves (generally once a week for three hours), and home health care services for those with medical needs that prevent them from bathing and getting out of bed themselves, or other physical frailties that require hands-on help (two to three days a week for up to four hours a visit).
Kover said that if many more hours of long-term assistance are needed, “we help people apply for Medicaid, because we can’t provide 24-hour service.”
Initially, the extra money from Germany will be used to provide home care to more survivors rather than increasing the maximum assistance of 25 hours per week per survivor. Kover said he has no waiting list, so if he does receive “significantly more money, we would do more outreach to inform more survivors that home care is available.”
He said it is estimated that there are 40,000 survivors in New York, of whom 5,200 are being served by Selfhelp, the largest provider of care to survivors in North America.
The decision of the German government to double the amount of money for home care — the largest single amount ever — came following 18 months of negotiations between Werner Gatzer, Germany’s state secretary at the Finance Ministry, and the Claims Conference, whose representatives included Gregory Schneider, the executive vice president, and Stuart Eizenstat, a former U.S. ambassador to the European Union.
Although the negotiations were completed Nov. 16, Eizenstat said the Germans asked that the announcement be delayed “until they could check with their Bundestag [parliament] Committee.”
The agreement came at a particularly sensitive time, just days after the FBI announced the arrests of 17 individuals — including six current and former Claims Conference employees — for engaging in an alleged $42.5 million fraud against the Claims Conference. It is alleged that they conspired over the course of 16 years to file and approve fraudulent claims for people who were not Nazi victims and thus not entitled to German reparations.
“The drama was that this was one week after the fraud case, and we weren’t sure if they wanted the meeting,” Eizenstat said. “They said come. And this was also in the midst of the European financial crisis.”
Roman Kent, treasurer of the Claims Conference and a key negotiator, said he met privately with Gatzer for more than an hour before the negotiating session began to impress upon him the importance of home care to survivors.
“I told him that this is a question of human suffering and that you have an obligation to help the survivors reach the end of their lives properly,” he said. “I said it is a moral and ethical issue. … He was impressed by this. I’m very satisfied with the result of $145 million.”
Eizenstat said that after the amount was agreed to, he made it “very clear that while we felt it was a very positive outcome, it is not the end of the road because the needs of survivors will continue to grow until 2014 when, because of attrition, the needs will go down. We were able to produce a convincing paper on that, which was validated by the German Social Welfare Agency.”
That paper pointed out that of the 520,000 survivors worldwide today, 260,000 are living at or below the poverty line — earning less than $21,660 annually. Of the 127,000 survivors living in the United States, 25 percent live at or below the poverty line; in Israel that figure is 35 percent, and in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union it is 90 percent.
Ailments common to old age, such as arthritis, are often exaggerated in survivors. One 85-year-old survivor from Borough Park, Brooklyn, said it is increasingly difficult for her to walk because of arthritis that she contracted in a Nazi concentration camp.
“I had no shoes or coat, just a striped dress, and I slept on the floor,” said the woman, who asked to remain anonymous. “One day they took us from the camp, and I escaped from the march. I was 18 and slept in the snow and have had arthritis since then.”
Worldwide, there are 101 agencies serving 58,000 home care recipients, nearly 20,000 of whom live in Israel.
“We are trying to make sure that every survivor who is poor has a minimum standard of living,” Schneider said.
He noted that some states like New York provide home care services while others such as Florida provide none.
“So we are saying that no matter what you receive from your state, we feel you should live with a minimum standard — a certain dignity.”
That standard of home care ensures that those who need it get the same maximum number of hours of home care per week — 25.
The new agreement should have an immediate effect of eliminating waiting lists for home care attendants, Schneider said.
“In the past, the need has exceeded funding,” he said.
When the home care program was first started in 2004, the German government allocated six million euros or about $8 million based on today’s exchange rate. That amount increased in each successive year, nearly doubling in each of the last three years.
But David Schaecter, president of the Florida-based Holocaust Survivors Foundation, USA, said this money is still “woefully inadequate” to meet the needs of survivors.
“They are denying survivors the help we desperately need from day to day,” he said. “This minimum level of dignity is such a blatant and ugly gesture that it is meaningless and hollow.”
Although the average age of survivors is 80, Kover said his clients’ average age is about 85. It is estimated that two-thirds of survivors in the U.S. live alone.
He pointed out that his organization projects that there will still be about 19,000 survivors living in New York in the year 2025. Through the year 2020, the number of survivors here who are older than 75 — the age at which they often begin needing help — will be more than 24,000.
The Selfhelp study prepared a year ago said this “last generation of survivors is likely to have complex needs. Fully 35 percent of survivors will be coping with serious or chronic illness, and 51 percent will be ‘very poor’ or ‘near poor’ under federal guidelines. Therefore, this group of survivors will have significant needs for home health care and financial assistance.”
The need for such help will come years after the income derived by the Claims Conference from the sale of heirless East German property has been depleted.
Menachem Rosensaft, vice president of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, said this is the time for the “Jewish community to step up to the plate” to help survivors.
“There are organizations that are taking credit for assisting survivors when they are doing so exclusively with funds from the Claims Conference,” he said. “Selfhelp is now trying to raise its own funds to make sure it is able to serve its constituency, and that is something all organizations should be doing.”
“But the major onus should still be on Germany,” Rosensaft stressed.