Survivors Feel Fresh Trauma After Claims Conference Fraud

By Paul Berger and Maia Efrem

Published November 17, 2010, issue of November 26, 2010.
  • Print
  • Share Share

After Fira Stukelman lost her family during the Holocaust, the only document to her name was a letter from the orphanage for children of victims where she lived.

Brighton Beach Survivors: Michael Gershon, 84, and Irina Reznikova, 77, are angry about the fraud.
MAIA EFREM
Brighton Beach Survivors: Michael Gershon, 84, and Irina Reznikova, 77, are angry about the fraud.

Stukelman, 77, was traumatized 16 years ago when she had to recite her story in detail — including how her mother was dragged from their home in the city of Vinnitsa, Ukraine, and taken into the woods, where Jews were burned alive — and had to obtain documentary evidence so that she could receive reparations money from the German government.

“I was so emotional, I cried for two or three months before I got the proof from the ghetto,” she said.

Stukelman had to undergo this trauma once more this past October, because the payments she and many others receive from the German government via the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany have fallen under a shadow of suspicion. Since the Claims Conference discovered last January that it had been defrauded of some $42.5 million by phony applicants claiming to be Holocaust survivors — a crime highlighted by the November 9 indictments of 17 people on federal fraud charges — it has apparently been scrambling to sort out the genuine from the fraudulent. One consequence is a Claims Conference questionnaire sent out to a number of reparations recipients in recent months, asking them to resubmit documents and a short history of their wartime experiences.

Meanwhile, survivors, the desperate ones for whom Holocaust compensation is a vital lifeline, are worried and confused. Elie Rubinstein, executive director of The Blue Card, a fund that helps the poorest Holocaust survivors, said that many who have been asked to resubmit documents last submitted their evidence 10 or 15 years ago. Today, they are in their 70s, 80s and 90s, and many find revisiting the Holocaust painful.

“It’s a very traumatic experience to have to relive everything again,” concurred Eva Fogelman, a psychologist who works with survivors. “Psychologically, as Holocaust survivors get older, some of them are much more affected by what happened years ago.”

Stukelman echoed that observation. “I felt so much pain. Nobody explained to me why we had to fill it out again. You like it or you don’t like it, you’re disappointed or not, you have to do it,” she said.

Just five days after the indictments were announced, it was an unseasonably mild day on the oceanside boardwalk that stretches across Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach. But the elderly Jews from the former Soviet Union sitting on the benches that day were steaming under the bright midday sun. It wasn’t the weather; for days, Russian-language media had been saturated with news about the alleged Holocaust fraud, in which Russians from Brooklyn are said to have been recruited to submit fraudulent claims for reparations to the Claims Conference.

Survivors Seething: Mariya Dextyar said she was 3 when the Nazis murdered her father. Of the alleged fraud, she said: ‘There will always be people who use a situation.’
MAIA EFREM
Survivors Seething: Mariya Dextyar said she was 3 when the Nazis murdered her father. Of the alleged fraud, she said: ‘There will always be people who use a situation.’

“It’s terrible,” said Sveta, who declined to give her surname. “They should shoot them,” she said, referring to the 17 people who were charged with defrauding two funds run by the Claims Conference.

Michael Gershon, an 84-year-old who survived the ghetto and then fought with the partisans in Belarus, said the crime was incomprehensible. “They should be punished,” he said.

A little farther along the boardwalk, 95-year-old Chaya, who did not wish to give her surname, said that if guilty, the accused should be imprisoned and never seen again. “Such greed,” she said. “You can’t forgive it.”

The arrests have sent a wave of alarm through Brooklyn’s Russian-speaking community. But while the rank-and-file elderly of Brighton Beach appear to have little sympathy for the accused, some establishment figures in the community have taken a more defensive position.

Stukelman, former vice president of the New York-based Association of Holocaust Survivors from the Former Soviet Union and a prominent activist in the Russian-speaking community, rejected the notion that Semen Domnitser, charged with being the scheme’s alleged mastermind, could have been involved. “I blame the people who do the fraud documents,” she said. “If it wasn’t for them, he wouldn’t now be in court. I am sure he didn’t do this.”

Rubinstein said that a segment of the Russian establishment believes the community is being vilified because it is Russian.

The alleged fraud, as described in the indictment filed by Preet Bharara, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, targeted two funds administered by the Claims Conference. The Hardship Fund makes a one-time payment of $3,600 to Jews who were evacuated during World War II. The Article 2 Fund makes monthly pension payments of $411 to those who lived in hiding or in a Jewish ghetto, or who were incarcerated in a concentration camp and now make less than $16,000 a year.

According to Bharara, the alleged fraudsters faked documents, altering places of birth, identities and evidence of persecution during the Nazi era in order to qualify for claims. They then split the proceeds with the fraudulent claimants. Six of the accused are current or former employees of the Claims Conference in New York, including Domnitser, the director of both funds.

“It’s so simple,” said Arkady Bukh, a Brooklyn attorney who represents at least one of the defendants. “You have people working in the [Claims] Conference, and one day they say to themselves: ‘Oh my God. This is an easy way to make money.’

“Then they call their friend, who calls their friend, and you find a runner [recruiter], and you build a scheme.”

Some alleged runners, like Valentina Romashova, who is accused of one count of conspiracy to commit mail fraud and one count of money laundering, allegedly advertised in Russian-language newspapers for applicants, or mules. According to the criminal complaint, Romashova recruited applicants and submitted applications on their behalf in exchange for tens of thousands of dollars in fees.

“Runners feel that they are untouchable, and the mules don’t feel guilty because they feel like they’re defrauding Nazi Germany,” Bukh said.

The Claims Conference notified the U.S. Attorney’s office at the end of last year that it suspected some claims were fraudulent. Bharara’s investigation revealed that many claims were made by people who were too young to have been alive during the Holocaust. At least one claimant was not Jewish.

A Claims Conference representative said that about 5,000 Hardship Fund cases are believed to have been falsified and are still under federal investigation.

Meanwhile, the Claims Conference has sent letters to 658 recipients of the Article 2 Fund, stating that they are ineligible and that it is immediately suspending their pensions. They have been asked to return the money in full or to appeal for a review. So far, more than 30 people have repaid money or displayed a willingness to do so, while 74 have opted to appeal.

Asked about the questionnaire that appears to have worried many survivors, a Claims Conference spokeswoman initially denied that any documents had been sent out asking survivors for more biographical data. Upon further questioning, the spokeswoman said that some recipients were in fact sent documents, but she would not elaborate any further, citing confidentiality between the survivors and the Claims Conference. The spokeswoman spoke only on the condition of anonymity.

A short walk from the boardwalk, in the shadow of the upscale Oceana apartment complex, elderly Holocaust survivors were eager to bear witness to what had happened to them during the war, and to share tales they had heard of people who falsely offered witness testimony to each other so that they could qualify for compensation.

Mariya Dextyar, who was born in Odessa, was 3 years old when her father was murdered by the Nazis. Dextyar, 72, said that she could not remember what her father looked like, and she began to cry. She wiped away her tears as she thought about the most recent crime perpetrated against survivors. “There will always be people who use a situation,” she said.

Contact Maia Efrem at efrem@forward.com


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Talk about a fashion faux pas. What was Zara thinking with the concentration camp look?
  • “The Black community was resistant to the Jewish community coming into the neighborhood — at first.” Watch this video about how a group of gardeners is rebuilding trust between African-Americans and Jews in Detroit.
  • "I am a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish man who was raised Catholic, but now considers himself a “common-law Jew.” We are raising our two young children as Jews. My husband's parents are still semi-practicing Catholics. When we go over to either of their homes, they bow their heads, often hold hands, and say grace before meals. This is an especially awkward time for me, as I'm uncomfortable participating in a non-Jewish religious ritual, but don't want his family to think I'm ungrateful. It's becoming especially vexing to me now that my oldest son is 7. What's the best way to handle this situation?" http://jd.fo/b4ucX What would you do?
  • Maybe he was trying to give her a "schtickle of fluoride"...
  • It's all fun, fun, fun, until her dad takes the T-Bird away for Shabbos.
  • "Like many Jewish people around the world, I observed Shabbat this weekend. I didn’t light candles or recite Hebrew prayers; I didn’t eat challah or matzoh ball soup or brisket. I spent my Shabbat marching for justice for Eric Garner of Staten Island, Michael Brown of Ferguson, and all victims of police brutality."
  • Happy #NationalDogDay! To celebrate, here's a little something from our archives:
  • A Jewish couple was attacked on Monday night in New York City's Upper East Side. According to police, the attackers flew Palestinian flags.
  • "If the only thing viewers knew about the Jews was what they saw on The Simpsons they — and we — would be well served." What's your favorite Simpsons' moment?
  • "One uncle of mine said, 'I came to America after World War II and I hitchhiked.' And Robin said, 'I waited until there was a 747 and a kosher meal.'" Watch Billy Crystal's moving tribute to Robin Williams at last night's #Emmys:
  • "Americans are much more focused on the long term and on the end goal which is ending the violence, and peace. It’s a matter of zooming out rather than debating the day to day.”
  • "I feel great sorrow about the fact that you decided to return the honor and recognition that you so greatly deserve." Rivka Ben-Pazi, who got Dutchman Henk Zanoli recognized as a "Righteous Gentile," has written him an open letter.
  • Is there a right way to criticize Israel?
  • From The Daily Show to Lizzy Caplan, here's your Who's Jew guide to the 2014 #Emmys. Who are you rooting for?
  • “People at archives like Yad Vashem used to consider genealogists old ladies in tennis shoes. But they have been impressed with our work on indexing documents. Now they are lining up to work with us." This year's Jewish Genealogical Societies conference took place in Utah. We got a behind-the-scenes look:
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.