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Florida Shoah Survivors Facing New Set of Woes: Age, Infirmity, Poverty

HALLANDALE, Fla. — With thick-rimmed glasses perched on his forehead and his hands folded across a woolly knit sweater, Aaron Stern looks more like the world-renowned behavioral scientist he once was than the man he has become: a Holocaust survivor who cannot pay his own rent.

The articulate 85-year-old has triumphed over enough adversity for several lifetimes. He survived the Warsaw Ghetto, where he was routinely beaten. He became a celebrity of sorts when he pledged at his daughter’s birth to turn her into a genius — and succeeded, only to have her turn away from him. He was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and, he says, for a Nobel Prize.

Now, however, Stern is facing a combination of foes that he cannot defeat: old age, advancing infirmity and the harshness of the new American economy. He lives on about $1,200 a month from Social Security and German reparations, he says. After medicine and rent — supplemented by a stipend from the Jewish Family Service of Broward County, which confirmed his account of his finances — he is left with about $100 for food and other necessities. Add a $3,000 yearly health insurance bill and rent that is set to skyrocket in September and, as Stern puts it, “I’m in the doghouse.”

Stern’s economic hardship is shared by an increasing number of aging survivors living in South Florida, home to the second-largest survivor population in the nation. In Broward County alone, the caseload of needy survivors served by the local Jewish Family Service has jumped to 260 from 100 in the past two years. Survivors continue to migrate to the Sunshine State in droves despite Florida’s dismal record of funding social welfare programs. Florida ranks in the bottom fifth of American states in most areas of social service funding.

But the fate of survivors in other states is not much better; according to the National Jewish Population Survey 2000-01, 25% of American survivors subsist below the poverty level, compared to 9% of all Jewish seniors. The conditions of needy survivors in the United States and other countries have become a burning topic of debate as American judges and government officials prepare to decide how to dole out hundreds of millions of dollars from restitution agreements with Germany and other European countries.

To hear him tell it, Stern is not only a victim of circumstance, but also a pacifist who paid dearly for his political convictions. The author of five books, he says he was once considered for the Nobel Prize for his Total Educational Submersion Method. According to Stern, he was turned down for the award and sidelined by the academic community after refusing an invitation to the White House in the late 1960s. His reason for snubbing President Lyndon Johnson is detailed in a framed letter to the president proudly displayed on the wall of his modestly furnished condo. Referring to his daughter, who at 15 became the youngest female university lecturer on record, Stern’s letter states: “Unfortunately, as pacifists, Edith and I can not accept your kind invitation until our troops are withdrawn from Vietnam.”

Like Stern, most needy American survivors aren’t living in hovels. And yet their conditions can be deplorable.

M., a resident of Pembroke Pines, Fla., who asked that her name not be used, shares a $1,200 monthly income with her husband, who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease, and her grown son, who is mentally ill.

When cash is scarce, M. buys a loaf of bread and jars of peanut butter and serves sandwiches to her husband and son for lunch and dinner. They have subsisted on this meager diet for as many as four days a week. Broward’s Jewish Family Service assists them with a monthly grant of $100 for food.

Born in 1938, M. is a child survivor who was shuttled between orphanages and sanatoriums during and after the war. She never had the time or financial security to learn to read or write. Now in her early 60s, M. says she cannot attend school or find a job because there would be no one to care for her ailing son and husband, who is also a survivor. She cannot afford to celebrate holidays or attend cultural events and has no other family members. She has her neighbors read her mail.

“The only thing I’m worried about is if I get sick and cannot take care of them,” she told the Forward in an interview. “As long as I don’t see how other people live and I don’t get jealous, I’m okay.”

The rhetoric over survivors’ finances has reached a fever pitch of late as a federal judge in Brooklyn prepares to decide how to spend as much as $600 million that may remain unclaimed from a $1.25 billion legal settlement between Holocaust survivors and Swiss banks. Heirs of Swiss bank-account owners have laid claim so far to less than $200 million of an available $800 million in looted account funds. U.S. District Judge Edward Korman has called for public statements on how the money that will remain unclaimed should be allocated. Survivor groups from Israel, the United States and the former Soviet Union are all staking claim to the so-called heirless funds.

In the past, survivors from the former Soviet Union have received the lion’s share of unclaimed funds made available for other purposes. According to an earlier ruling, the largest category of unclaimed funds was to assist the neediest survivors, and experts deemed survivors in the former Soviet Union to be the neediest population because of the near-total lack of a social safety net in that region. American survivor groups say they have been shortchanged, however, pointing to needy cases in this country as proof. The government of Israel and advocates of Jewish education are also fighting for a piece of the pie, to the consternation of survivor activists who insist the restituted funds should go to victims of Nazism themselves.

Social welfare experts say the situation in South Florida is getting worse as the already scant government funding is being cut further and HMOs are raising their fees.

The hits come from many directions. The federally funded Meals on Wheels program recently reduced the number of frozen dinners it provides to seniors in the area. Moreover, Florida ranks fourth in the nation for the number of Medicare beneficiaries dropped by their HMOs in 2003, according to the federal government’s Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

Betty Ventura of Tamarac said she recently received a call from her HMO warning her of increased copayments and shortened hospital stays as of January 1. A survivor of the Stutthoff concentration camp in Poland, Ventura, 73, is already unable to cover her medical costs and makes do by asking her doctor for free drug samples. “Now it’s getting even more difficult,” she said.

Adding to the problem is a sizeable shortfall in funding for Holocaust programming at South Florida’s Jewish family service centers. The shortfall is linked to the economic slowdown and a reduction of allocations from the Jewish charitable federations.

As a result, the Jewish Family Service in Broward and the Jewish Community Services of South Florida in Miami have significantly chopped the number of hours of home care they provide to ailing survivors.

“It’s almost as though they are being revictimized,” said the assistant director of Broward’s Jewish Family Service, Kenneth Moskowitz.

An American survivor group, Holocaust Survivors’ Foundation-USA, joined by national leaders of the network of Jewish family services, has been pushing Judge Korman and Jewish community groups to provide funding for increased home care. Home-care services, such as cleaning, shopping and light nursing, are widely viewed as one of the most effective measures for keeping aging survivors out of nursing homes.

Jewish family service centers have requested major increases in home-care funding from one of their primary benefactors, the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany. But even though the new funding year for these centers has begun, it is still unclear whether the Claims Conference, charged with allocating restitution funds, will meet the requests. However, the organization has pledged to press the German government to fund home care for survivors.

Stern, the behavioral scientist, received a letter recently from Broward’s Jewish Family Service warning him that funding cuts may affect him. Stern is recovering from cataract surgery and receives six hours of home care a week.

The German-born survivor, who jumped from a speeding train to escape the Nazis, finds creative ways to survive on a dwindling paycheck. He shops for bread and produce at a 99-cent shop. Reclining in his ragged but cozy brown couch, Stern says he largely blames himself for his current state. He could have made due with the royalties from his books on education, one of which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, if not for his terminally bad luck as an investor in the stock market. His most significant hardship, however, is personal. His relationship with his gifted daughter is strained at best.

But the circumspect Stern has enough anger left over for Germany and groups allocating reparation funds. “We should be able to live, not even in comfort, but with dignity.”

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