For Aging Survivors, a Prescription for Disaster

By Menachem Z. Rosensaft

Published January 31, 2003, issue of January 31, 2003.
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Somewhere in hell, Hitler, Eichmann and their cohorts must be laughing.

While elderly Holocaust survivors cannot afford proper medical treatment and are forced to subsist on the edge of poverty, the German government provides full healthcare and generous pensions to its World War II veterans. It is utterly obscene that former Nazi soldiers are living under better conditions than the Jews whom they persecuted and whose families they murdered.

A substantial number of the 125,000 or so Holocaust survivors living in the United States do not have anywhere near adequate health insurance. And there are hundreds of thousands more — the actual number is virtually impossible to calculate — living in similarly abject conditions in Israel, the former Soviet Union and elsewhere. Many of them, especially survivors living in Eastern Europe and Latin America, only have access to inferior and often inadequate healthcare.

Given the absence of universal healthcare in the United States, many American Holocaust survivors simply cannot afford desperately needed medical treatment. The combination of Medicare, Social Security benefits and the meager reparations some survivors receive from Germany is insufficient to pay for doctors, extended hospital stays, nursing care, prescription drugs, eyeglasses and the like. Survivors often must decided whether to buy food or medication, whether to pay the rent or get their dentures fixed.

According to one estimate prepared by a senior professional in the healthcare industry, Medicare supplemental coverage for the 125,000 survivors in the United States, including a combination of upgrade and uncovered cost, could be provided for approximately $130 million annually, and upgrading Medicare recipients to the highest level of prescription drug coverage would cost around $90 million annually. Providing them with home care would cost between $45 million and $120 million per year, depending on the level of care, and long-term care insurance would cost approximately $220 million per year.

Although the German government has paid many millions of dollars in reparations to more than 500,000 Holocaust survivors since 1953, the relatively small monthly payments to many — but far from all — individual survivors do not come close to meeting their basic needs. Since German reunification in 1990, the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany has also spent more than $340 million from the sale of recovered heirless Jewish property in the former East Germany for the care and social welfare of survivors. But these payments, too, fall far short of providing the survivor community with a healthcare safety net.

Critics of the Claims Conference have argued that all available funds should be used exclusively for the care and welfare of the survivors, pointing to the $55 million that the Claims Conference allocated between 1995 and 2000 for Holocaust research, documentation and educational projects.

Those critics know full well that the money the Claims Conference allocates for educational projects would not substantively address the healthcare crisis faced by Holocaust survivors. An additional $100 million, spread over 500,000 survivors world-wide — a low estimate — would come to no more than $200 per person. “Even if we did spend 100% of the money on social welfare, it still wouldn’t be enough to take care of all the needs of the survivors,” contends Claims Conference chairman Julius Berman.

To be sure, not all survivors need assistance. Some are wealthy. Many more have full health insurance, or live in countries that, unlike the United States, provide universal healthcare to all their citizens. That, however, is of no comfort whatsoever to less fortunate survivors unable to cope with serious or terminal illnesses, many of which are the direct result of their suffering during the Holocaust.

The plight of Holocaust survivors urgently requires an international conference for the purpose of achieving a broad-based government-sponsored solution. All those nations and institutions that participated or acquiesced in Hitler’s “Final Solution of the Jewish Question” should join forces to provide survivors with comprehensive healthcare.

To be sure, responsibility for the Holocaust rests squarely on Germany’s shoulders. But our own government, which closed our gates to hundreds of thousands of desperate refugees during the 1930s and early 1940s, cannot claim total innocence. Neither can France, whose police rounded up Jews — including refugees from Germany, Poland and other countries — to be sent to Auschwitz. Neither can Switzerland, which not only repelled Jewish refugees from its borders to almost certain death, but whose banks for decades knowingly kept unclaimed assets deposited by European Jews before and during the Holocaust. Nor can Poland, which continues to refuse to return the buildings, apartments, farms and other real property that once belonged to its Jewish citizens. Other European governments have similar stains on their consciences.

The German government, with the participation of German industry, should provide full healthcare to all Jews who were persecuted by the Nazis and their multinational accomplices. This certainly ought to be a higher priority than building yet another autobahn. If each German federal and state governmental agency, each German municipality and each German corporation with more than 500 employees would cover the health insurance of only a few hundred survivors, the entire problem would be solved. The least Germany should do is to give all its victims the same rights and privileges it accords to erstwhile members of the Waffen-SS.

The American government, meanwhile, should accord all American Holocaust survivors the status of veterans of the American armed services, and free access to Veterans Administration hospitals and facilities. The French, Swiss, Austrian, Polish and other European governments should also contribute meaningfully to a fund to provide comprehensive medical care and other fundamental social services to those whom their predecessors betrayed or robbed.

We cannot give the survivors back their annihilated families or their destroyed homes. We cannot even ease their anguish or their nightmares. But we can and must do everything in our power to enable every Holocaust survivor to receive medical care, to get prescription medication and to obtain long-term hospital or home nursing care. This is not the maximum but the absolute minimum to which they are entitled. We simply do not have the right to settle for less.

Menachem Rosensaft, a partner in the New York law firm of Ross & Hardies, is the founding chairman of the International Network of Children of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, and a member of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council.

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