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Old Ways

Soviet Jews survived by gaming the system, so it’s no surprise some felt entitled to fraudulently claim reparations from Germany

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Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. (Flickr/Simon Albury)
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Last week, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York charged 17 Russian-speaking employees and associates of two Holocaust-restitution funds with defrauding the claims programs of $42 million. The suspects allegedly recruited Russian-speaking applicants and either doctored or invented claim-worthy stories on their behalf.

For me, the news served as a doleful affirmation: The alleged criminals seem to have had the same thought I did when I filled out my now-deceased grandmother’s application for reparations years ago. The details of her story were true: She spent 26 months incarcerated in the Minsk ghetto, managing to escape a month before it was liquidated and her parents and maternal grandparents were murdered. But as I considered the application’s thin verification requirements, I thought: How easy this would be to fake.

So I did.

For the last year, I have been inventing stories of Holocaust suffering: a mother suffocating her wailing child to save the other Jews hiding in a cellar; a ghetto work detail sorting the blood-spattered clothes of murdered Jews; Belarussian Nazi collaborators pausing between executions at street tables loaded with chicken and beer. But rather than feeding some criminal scheme, these stories are at the heart of a novel I’ve been writing—the story of a young writer, a failure in New York magazine journalism, who, in frustration, takes to forging Holocaust restitution claims at the prompting of old Soviet Jews in Brighton Beach and other parts of Soviet Brooklyn.

In the book, as in real life, these are people who have suffered unimaginably—as Red Army soldiers in World War II; as Jews in the Soviet Union; as immigrants in the United States—but not in the way the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany specifies they need to have suffered to qualify for the reparations the German government has been making to Holocaust victims since 1952.

Slava Gelman, my fictionalized letter-writer, wants to resist the logic of these old immigrants even as his heart breaks at their misery. He, too, is a Soviet émigré; his elders brought him to America so he wouldn’t have to live by the deception that they did. In the Soviet Union, Jews were kept out of elite institutions and posts; Jewish veterans who had lost limbs at the front were taunted for having sat out World War II; a Jewish woman could hardly touch a loaf of stale bread at the food store without having her “grubby Jewish fingers” berated by the cashier. Soviet Jews lived in an inconceivable limbo of unfairness and hypocrisy. Many would have been too happy to forget their faith, but their countrymen never allowed them to.

I was also born in the Soviet Union, where Jews like my grandfather had no choice but to live by the black market. Ostensibly a barber, my grandfather developed a clandestine barter network that would impress a CIA station chief. A haircut on the side for a stick of salami; salami for free Aeroflot tickets; free tickets for the ear of a powerful person in case trouble comes. The only way to get by was to cheat the system—there simply wasn’t enough to go around fairly. It’s hard to think of a regime that claimed to do as much in the name of its people while impoverishing them more—materially, physically, morally. It’s hard to fault an ex-Soviet person for feeling owed. But, as a character in the novel says, “the Soviets aren’t offering restitution. The Germans are offering.”

***

The low burden of proof required by the reparations program wouldn’t tempt the average American: The law is the law here. That is the wonder of this country, for all its flaws: There’s enough to go around. Connections, pedigree, and money all help, but so many ordinary people can achieve what they’d like simply by working fairly and honestly. You can afford to be decent here.

Had the defrauded funds been American rather than German, it isn’t hard to imagine the news sticking in some immigration-obsessed Tea Party congressman’s craw, with its easy iconography of interlopers illegally sucking down precious native resources. The law is the law; the Holocaust-fund suspects should be prosecuted. So should, for that matter, those who cross the border illegally. But what should find no tolerance is the nativist demonology that so often accompanies news of malfeasance by a small portion of a minority group. The Russians have gotten off easy, their persecution limited to movies like Red Dawn and Gary Shteyngart’s novels. But what of more hideous gestures, such as Nevada Senate candidate Sharron Angle’s video of faceless Mexican marauders scaling the walls of our innocent land? The vast majority of illegal Mexican immigrants are here to make money to put clothes on the backs of children in Puebla—money earned doing work most Americans won’t deign to do, and for a pittance. Since so much modern journalism seems to have squandered its traditional mandate to force primitive instinct to contend with nuance, perhaps fiction has to step in.

The poison inside the people who allegedly defrauded the Holocaust fund would be inside you, too, if you had lived as Jews in the Soviet Union. Whatever their sins, these people are heroes, too, for having survived it. The struggle to defeat its legacy requires a daily application of conscience and will, even for members of my generation. I actually envy Slava, my own fictionalized protagonist, for the way in which he chooses America at the end of the book. Fiction is freeing that way; that’s one of its limiting seductions. For some, in real life, it’s simply too late.

Nothing is more uplifting than the American gospel of self-reinvention, but America forgets that human nature sometimes has a limit. That is part of America’s vital, ferocious, oblivious beauty. But it’s too late for those who traded their complimentary American synagogue memberships for cash; for those who sign for imaginary pills and massages to split profits with doctors who file for Medicare reimbursement; for those for whom it’s still 1977 in Minsk.

Slava spends only the 400 pages of my book arguing with his grandfather about the meaning of justice; I have spent more than a decade arguing with mine. In this time, I have achieved things I never imagined, but I have changed nothing about what men like our grandfathers see in the world. That creates one kind of conundrum for the American legal system, and another for Russian-Americans of my age. Our grandparents are our shame, but they are also our wisdom, courage, and tenderness. They gave up everything so we could have more. But in the United States, they remain Soviet—that singular cocktail of cunning, fear, paranoia, ambition, materialism, anti-intellectual refinement, tribalism, prudery, soul. It is the lasting curse of our magical, hideous birthplace. How do you forgive and revere these people at once? How do you honor someone whose definition of honor is entirely different from yours?

I found my only answer in fiction: Consider them individually, as the idiosyncratic, reduction-imploding human beings that they—that we all—are.

Boris Fishman is a 2010-2011 fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts.

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Alyssa says:

a wonderful writen piece.

This has nothing to do with Russian Jews or with the environment they were brought up. Scoundrels and cheaters live in every country and under any government. Look at the deeds of American lawyers (mostly Jewish) who are bringing up thousands of fraudulent cases so that they even became a model for a Jewish stereotype among anti-Semites. Or look at the dishonest recipients of the welfare benefits (mostly not Jewish, however) who shamelessly use our money. This has nothing to do with Russia or communists. If society allows scoundrels to abuse it – then they most certainly will.

If, in fact, their thievery is, in part, legitimized by their prior cultural milieu, it follows that they must be punished to the maximum allowed by law. Fear of painful outcome, is very effective in overcoming inner drives — regardless of the source or cause. Additionally, the longer they spend in jail, the less likely (not excluded from the possibility) they will be to steal again.

Gene, if you look at fraud from exSoviets who are not Jews, it looks exactly the same. I’m sorry if that’s not convenient enough for you to be able to pin on “mostly Jews”.

Boris, how cute that you introduce the Tea Party the Mexican Borders issue and your book with thieves and liars. What was your goal in this article? Seems like you’re all over the place. Some low lifes profiting from the Holocaust… It’s not a surprise. Are you trying to say they are justified to some degree? How is it that you can compare these people that stole as you say $42M to Jews at the pogroms? Does anyone know how to write an objective article?!?! Your political views are of no interest to me or to most of the readers on Tablet. Do us all a favor reports the news don’t translate it!

VB

By the way I loved your article “Under the Chuppah”. This one was disappointing.

Marty Janner says:

HOW TRUE! OY VEY…..

I am applaud that you pick up on these Soviet Jews from Brighton Beach
that are GONEFS. When Russia started to free Jews, many came to America.
I and my family helped a number of Soviet relatives come to the US and they all became Productive US Citizens FAST. Look at all the Jews that make up a good part of the Hi-Tech industry in Israel. Without then, Israel would not be the power house in so many advanced fields.

I would agree that all people that live under harsh conditions, when move to a free environment, and do not have education and skills from the old country my be part of the problem.

Most of these X Russians still love the old food, but earn their bread as we do. Russia gave them a good education under poor other conditions.
Sy Fort Lee NJ

Hm. I get the point about soviet jewry, but meanwhile most Holocaust survivors live in poverty and nobody much gives a damn – there are no heroics in defrauding the fund and preoccupying precious, limited time and money. So many stand in line to exploit Holocaust survivors even now – what a shame that it comes from within the community as well. Stalin wasn’t Hitler, and the crimes are not comparable.

I’d also like to point out that you’re wrong about what you call the “low burden of proof” – how preposterous. Germany routinely denies thousands of applications because of technicalities in filling out the paperwork. There are legal nonprofits whose sole purpose is to train attorneys in how to fill out these forms properly. Many survivors – who can’t pay for groceries, or health care – wait months and years for attorney help, and for reparations money that often never arrives. Or doesn’t arrive within their lifetime.

My problem with this lovely lyric essay is that it’s touching and makes a point, but it’s a naive and facile point that promotes a book and defends behavior that is indefensible. “At least the money is going to Jews” is not an intelligent or admirable position, but it does do the author some solid self-promotion.

on the backs of those who have never been properly defended or protected – the survivors themselves.

I can’t tell whether it’s just glib, narcissistic cleverness that’s ACCIDENTALLY idiotic, or whether it’s just idiocy that is ALSO glib and narcissistic.

I’m sure it sounded clever and poignant when read out loud to a test audience at the artist’s colony, but its insidious message of moral relativism is a disrespectful affront to those who survived the genocidal crimes of Nazi Germany.

I wish Fishman had actually bothered to inform himself about the unique hardships for Survivors trying to work within reparations programs, or about the horrifying bureaucratic injustices (both through the Claims Conference AND through the German government) that have already caused thousands to die without their payments.

If he had an ounce of knowledge, he could not have written this:

“The poison inside the people who allegedly defrauded the Holocaust fund would be inside you, too, if you had lived as Jews in the Soviet Union.”

what hurtful ignorance is this, masquerading as some sort of half-ass moral compassion?

Most of these immigrants think they can’t get away with a law and are used to Russian weak laws in the past, some just don’t want to work and receive welfare. Not all of them like that, not my family….only received help for 2 months and worked ever since. It depends on a person, and if someone is intelligent and has high consience they would not do what some Brighton folks do.

Ruth Gutmann says:

Boris Fishman needs to sit down and think of the meaning of his excuses, and your editors should ask themselves what possessed them to publish his piece. Let’s just say: it was not your finest day.

Shiryah A. says:

I will do what Boris should have done: recommend that people make donations to the Blue Card Fund or one of many other invaluable charities helping survivors who will not receive money thanks to Fishman’s criminal “heros.”

http://www.bluecardfund.org/home.html

A shame that such smug chumpery made its way into Tablet – or did Fishman pay Tablet to run this opportunistic advertisement for his novel?

His craven agenda is revealed in this gem of a line: “I actually envy Slava, my own fictionalized protagonist” – clearly he envies the character who defrauds Holocaust survivors – he’s essentially doing the same action in his article.

I recommend that Boris put down his manuscript and send some money to defraud the Claims Conference for funds for his own psychotherapy, since his moral bankruptcy is a canker on the soul of American Jewry.

(this article is so pathetic on so many levels that I’m beginning to wonder whether it’s a prank by The Onion or excerpted from a Monty Python skit: “Since so much modern journalism seems to have squandered its traditional mandate to force primitive instinct to contend with nuance, perhaps fiction has to step in.” )

Shiryah A. says:

correction – I recommend that Boris put down his manuscript and send some money to Blue Card, or else defraud the Claims Conference for funds for his own psychotherapy,

“The poison inside the people who allegedly defrauded the Holocaust fund would be inside you, too, if you had lived as Jews in the Soviet Union.”

Speak for yourself, Boris. In the war, my grandfather lost his parents, 3 sister, and a brother. My grandmother lost her father in the war.

My father used to tell me “There are Jews and there are Zhids.” Those who defrauded the Claims Conference are not Jews, they are Zhids. Who are the true Russian Jews? Those who possess the strong work ethic and sense of family that enabled them to survive 70 years of communism and adjust so quickly to the New World.

We may have traded our cards under the Soviet table, but here in America most of us have no problem showing our deck. We revived Brighton Beach and Washington Heights, we have a Google co-founder, we have a co-anchor on Good Morning America (hello Bianna) We strengthened Israel.

We don’t need to fraudulently take money from Germany, because we have the talent to earn it the honest way.

Joy Old City says:

Fishman, you lost me.

There is something about living on the edges of acceptable society that forces some to seek short cuts – the Mafia is the most obvious parallel. And in the age of quotas and social barriers preventing Jews from succeeding, shady business men and outright criminals were no strangers to our people. But what now, we still have crooks. Madoff didn’t grow up under Stalin, and was an equal opportunity thief – rich or poor and charity alike all got the scam.

The one point in this article that did ring true for me was the the idea that honor and good behavior has no meaning to someone who has been reduced to living on a base animal instinct. Being raised by an Auschwitz survivor, one sees many behaviours that are more like animal cunning, but in normal society rather than a death camp, are read as conniving. These can amount to trivialities , like returning items to stores and lying about the reasons, but they are still dishonest, and, if not illegal, certainly beyond our religious laws. The instincts created in a death camp do not disappear when the leaving the gate. And, on the one hand, we admire the scrappy self-made men who later become big donors to charities, but don’t look to hard at how those success stories started (George Soros comes to mind, excuse my politics…)

And lastly, the Holocaust survivors, are widely regarded as heroes, and well they should be. But, they are scarred and flawed heroes.

That being said, the wider society is full of thugs, hoodlums and thieves. As Officer Krupke said, he’s misunderstood, he’s got a social disease.

God gave us the power to make a choice. Hard for me to believe this was gut instinct from a bad childhood, more like perceived easy money and they got caught. To the thief, getting caught is the problem, everything else is justified.

Boris you maggot you are making excuses for these lowlives some of whom are not even Jewish but pretended to be so to get out of the USSR. You are a weakling and a rationalizer. I will take Sarah Palin over Obummer when it comes to the security of Israel. I hope you fall out of your Ivory Tower or someone pushes you.

Chana Batya says:

This article is brilliant, attempting to understand why people act in what are to us dishonorable ways. I have been embarrassed by the shenanigans foisted upon America not only by the Russian immigrants but also by Chasidim who collect welfare and Medicaid while refusing to get jobs “my husband is a student and I have 10 children to feed and send to yeshiva”. There are reasons for this behavior, which, while illegal (and subject to prosecution if caught) and I thank the author for reminding us how trauma’s injuries persist long after the trauma appears to be over. Survival is Judaism’s highest goal, right, even if the life you save is your own? There are three things a Jew should die for: apostasy, immoral sexual activity and I can’t remember the third, but otherwise, we are supposed to try to live. The Russians, the survivors of the Nazi persecutions and genocide, did what they could to survive. It’s painfully hard to learn when the war is over.

This is true for other immigrants to America, including Mexicans. Including Africans. Including…many, many others.

This article was as offensive to me as Christine O’Donnel’s commercial telling me that “I am you”. It was insulting because I am nothing like her and the implication was disparaging to me.
I felt the same anger after reading this article. I was born in Russia and spent some of my formative years there and therefore can relate to tribulations experienced by the Russian Jews. What’s maddening is Fishman’s implication that it’s an excuse for defrauding Holocaust reparation funds. It’s a despicable act – period. I don’t care if you’re using the money to buy bread, which, believe me, the thieves who took the $42M are not. More than likely it’s for german automobiles, italian designer clothes, and such other “necessities” of life. Jews stealing from other Jews – I don’t care where you grew up, there is no excuse for it. I find it as deplorable and distasteful as engaging in justification of this fraudulent behavior.

R. Miller says:

This is just Boris getting a green light by Tablet to write a provocative piece to stir things up, create a buzz and then the inevitable thread we all get sucked into. Sort of a win-win . . . Boris gets PR. . . this Tablet page gets viral but the third part (us) well, that’s the patronizing part – since I don’t think Boris even believes what he writes in this piece. . . So, is this just going to be the schtick we get every few days – a weak piece meant to be provocative but nothing more? . . .on the other hand, the classic Friday night dinner conversations start of like this – so I guess I am once again hooked. . . enjoying how others then make great intellectual arguments for either side. . . (I just wish we as the readers were given a little more credit)

brynababy says:

A shameful article. And a dubious analysis.

dani levi says:

scum, plain and simple. Stealing the money while Survivors in Israel go cold and hungry because “there is no money”. Scum and uncouth. It was not meant for them, they knew it, they went to great lengths to defraud a system meant for the traumatized who surely need it. This reminds of of the Pals who were Arab-nationalists in the run up to the founding of the State of Israel and sold their land to the JNF secretly.

On another thought: this is not exactly a scam (what they did), for unlike immoral lawyers and dishonest welfare recipients the majority (if not all) of Jews from the former Soviet Union are indeed either Holocaust survivors or their descendants. For it does not mater either one survived Holocaust in the concentration camp or in the basement of some righteous person or in the wastelands of Siberia or in the encircled city of Leningrad, left without food and clothes. All of them, one way or another, survived the slaughter which was directed to annihilate them. And it is not their fault but the one of the German government which in defining sufferings inflicted on Jews by the German nation did not include their specific circumstances. And it is not their fault that majority of American Jews (judging by the answers on this article) who betrayed them in a difficult time are such clueless and arrogant people.

Zionist says:

VB wrote: “Boris, how cute that you introduce the Tea Party the Mexican Borders issue and your book with thieves and liars.”

Boris, Tablet is not “A New Read on Jewish Life”; it is “Yet Another Read on Liberal Jewish Life.”

I’m no conservative; I hold views independent of both sides. But Tablet’s flagrant ideological bias means I don’t usually bother to read it; its not new but rather predictable.

One might say that Tablet’s liberal dogma runs over my karma.

And yet another thought: this whole matter is quite disgusting. Jews, either legitimate or illegitimate recipients of the German reparations, had to refuse to take the money. This is a disgrace to Jewish people; it shows that Jews have no self-respect, that the stereotyping image of a Jew as a money grabber, ready to sell for a profit his own mother is not a creation of some stupid anti-semite but a true fact.

Hedy Sussmann says:

Surely Boris Fishman can present a nuanced, compassionate article without experiencing vitriol from partisan voices. This is not intended as a news account of the events. Nowhere does he suggest that Holocaust survivors should be defrauded of their dues. Nowhere does he suggest that what has occurred is correct. He is simply defining a psychological construction of why this may have occurred. This requires a subtlety of reading, not a reading of bald fact, not an outrage on behalf of those whose suffering has been immense. That is another article, and maybe those so inflamed should consider putting pen to paper and writing on behalf of their constituents. That at least might achieve something rather than to malign the skills of a sensitive writer. It is not his job to write bare facts. What he succeeded in doing with me is drawing my attention to the flawed nature of us all. We all struggle with our humanity. We struggle against powerful forces of injustice, feel victimized and, in our own way, try to get a piece of the action. There are few real heroes amongst us.

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Old Ways

Soviet Jews survived by gaming the system, so it’s no surprise some felt entitled to fraudulently claim reparations from Germany

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