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There are thousands of destitute Holocaust survivors living in the New York area

Josh Tapper
August 19, 2010
(Photos by Allison Michael Orenstein)
(Photos by Allison Michael Orenstein)

Helen Berkovitz lives alone in an austere Borough Park apartment, on a sleepy street about 10 blocks south of Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn. She’s blind and diabetic, but the 81-year-old Holocaust survivor is surprisingly spry. Her fourth-floor apartment has all the hallmarks of an elderly woman’s abode: An array of tchotchkes sits on a glass shelving unit around the television, and pictures of bar mitzvahs, weddings, and vacations are arranged symmetrically on the walls above the dining table and in the hallway leading to the door.

Not long ago, Berkovitz applied for Section 8, a subsidized housing program for low-income New Yorkers, only to be denied on the grounds her income from Social Security was too high. Seven months ago, her monthly food-stamp allotment of $57 was reduced to less than $15. After a $96.50 Medicare deduction, Berkovitz receives just over $1,300 each month, a sum that barely covers her needs, which include 24 pills a day. Berkovitz doesn’t fall below the 2010 federal poverty line, but she lives a meager existence, absolutely dependent on the financial support of government programs and Jewish service organizations.

One of an estimated 38,053 Holocaust survivors in the New York City metropolitan area, according to 2010 projections by Selfhelp Community Services, Berkovitz also counts as one of 4,947 survivors categorized as “near poor.” Selfhelp, which, along with a host of other aid organizations, assists cash-strapped survivors, says that 15,855 survivors in the metropolitan area live below the federal poverty line.

With all the Holocaust museums, educational curriculums, and movies, the fact that survivors continue to struggle well into old age is a tragic irony. Survivors reap very little material benefit from their veneration in the culture at large. While their past is often invoked as a cautionary tale, their present all too easily gets lost in the shuffle. In the immediate post-World War II period, survivors were the focal point of Jewish philanthropic efforts, a claim historian Hasia Diner uses to debunk the alleged “myth of silence” among American Jews after the Holocaust. But while basic services, like jobs and housing, were enough to refresh people’s lives, aid slowed to trickle as survivors aged. Rehabilitation went only so far.

The question of what the descendants of Holocaust perpetrators owe to survivors treads a fine line between moral and material restitution. The moral imperative to, essentially, force countries like Germany, Austria, Poland, and Hungary into a lifetime of apology led to the creation of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany in 1952. Since then, Germany has provided nearly $60 billion to pay individual compensation as well as group social service programs. More than half of Selfhelp’s $7 million annual budget comes from Claims Conference funding.

But the Claims Conference, which budgeted nearly $115 million nationally in 2009 to fund direct compensation payments, social service programs such as home care and food programs, and Holocaust education and research initiatives, is an imperfect system. “There are competitive claims,” Ronald Zweig, a historian at New York University and the author of German Reparations and the Jewish World: a History of the Claims Conference, told me. “The Claims Conference wants to use the money for institutions, for the future, but survivors say, ‘We are the Holocaust.’ ”

Helen Berkovitz, like many needy survivors, feels entitled to whatever she asks for. The Claims Conference allocation system, which indirectly funds programs like psychological counseling and social function, doesn’t affect survivors in the same way as hard cash payments. A few years ago she asked the Claims Conference for a one-time donation to pay for a trip to Auschwitz, where her parents died. After a series of petitions, she says, she was denied.

Depending on the type of camp a survivor endured, plus its geographical location and duration of stay, a survivor might be eligible for monthly payments of 291 euros, or around $400, from the German government through the Claims Conference’s Article 2 Fund. Currently, only 9 percent of U.S. survivors receive Article 2 Funds. The rest of the direct payments are earmarked for emergency use only.

In the New York metropolitan area, the Claims Conference supports 10 organizations, which provide the bulk of support. They range from small Orthodox associations, like Borough Park’s Bikur Cholim, to the vast Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, which dispenses funds through 25 Jewish Community Councils.

Selfhelp attends to around 5,600 Holocaust survivors every year in the five boroughs and Nassau County. Since its founding in 1936, Selfhelp’s mission has been to help émigrés from Nazi Germany and, after the war, to remain the “last surviving relative to Holocaust survivors and other victims of Nazi persecution.” It provides everything from laundry and transportation to subsidized health care and financial advice, as well as community-building programs throughout the year and emergency cash assistance to cover utilities, medical bills, food, and clothing. In addition to the natural effects of aging, survivors suffer from a multitude of psychological and social debilities, often stemming from what the vice president for Nazi Victim Services at Selfhelp refers to as the “big black hole” existential question, “Why am I here, and why is my brother not?”

These are questions that face caseworkers across all survivor aid organizations, like Miriam, a client coordinator with the Council of Jewish Organizations of Flatbush, part of the Metropolitan Council network, who visits Berkovitz every couple weeks. (Miriam declined to give her last name.) The visits often delve deeper than banal conversation and become reminiscences. On a mid-December day, Miriam sat across from Berkovitz and teased out her life story. Berkovitz’s survival is likely familiar to anyone with a passing knowledge of the Holocaust, but what has happened to her since often goes unnoticed.

In 1944, the 15-year-old Berkovitz and her family were relocated from Dej, a rural town in what was then northwestern Hungary, to a ghetto on the forested outskirts of town, along with 8,000 other Jews. In June of that year, the ghetto was liquidated, and the residents were herded onto trains bound for Auschwitz.

At the camp, Berkovitz was separated from her mother by Dr. Josef Mengele. She remembers crying for her mother and asking a Polish woman where the guards had taken her parents. The woman, she says, pointed to the smoke billowing from the crematoria, darkening the sky. Berkovitz remembers thinking the smoke was going up to God. Housed in a children’s barrack for eight months, Berkovitz was eventually sent to work in a Siemens factory in Nuremburg. There she fused platinum for airplane parts until her liberation in May 1945. It took the ragged teenager four weeks to return to Dej, now in Romania.

For the next two years, Berkovitz worked as a maid in Klausenburg, a nearby town, before marrying another survivor. The couple left Hungary, spent some time in a displaced-persons camp in Hamburg, and finally settled in Israel, in a small farming community near the Gaza Strip. Without education or money, she and her husband worked as farmers. Berkovitz later attended hairdressing school outside the settlement.

Like other settlers in 1967, Berkovitz, her husband, and their two children left for the United States. The family moved to Borough Park but found that extended family ignored requests to meet. And in New York, misfortune piled on. Berkovitz failed her licensing test to practice hairdressing. The language barrier was insuperable. And the wig-making store she opened in 1973 folded two years later, unable to compete, she says, with Russian immigrants selling cheaper products. Not long after, her husband, who worked at a Queens bakery, was paralyzed in a hit-and-run, leaving him incapacitated and in need of personal care until his death in 1999. Five years after the accident, possibly as a result of stress, Berkovitz suffered a heart attack, forcing her to send her husband to a primary-care facility on Staten Island, where she visited each day.

The final indignity came when, in 1959, Berkovitz had registered for reparations, hiring a Tel Aviv lawyer to manage the process, giving him power of attorney, and then never seeing the 34,000 marks (roughly $8,500) she was owed.

Berkovitz can trace these lines that led her to near poverty, but she can’t explain them. And she’s not alone. On any given day, Miriam, a boisterous 58-year-old daughter of Holocaust survivors, might visit up to 10 clients, checking in and chatting, often absorbing unwieldy stories from the war years. While caseworkers provide a comforting presence and find quick-fix solutions to improve quality of life, they sometimes represent the result of Claims Conference allocations, money that survivors feel could go directly into their pockets.

“I’m old, but I’m not meshuggah,” Berkovitz says. “Why does Bikur Cholim need 60 people on staff? They come and tell jokes and they need a salary?” To some extent, Miriam is spared from this complaint, and Berkovitz quickly notes her appreciation of the time Miriam spends chatting.

“There’s a tremendous amount of resentment,” Miriam concedes. “Because they did go though a terrible time, they do feel they should get a bit more, and we’re not doing enough for them. Fair enough. Unfortunately, the money is just not there.”

Following Miriam on her rounds makes the point clear. On an overcast late January day, Miriam moves at a quick pace, scurrying from her car to a client’s front door with determined urgency. She mostly visits women. Today, she’s here to visit Sylvia Goldstein, an 87-year-old Auschwitz survivor. The front door of Goldstein’s building is cracked and grimy; the screen is flecked with white paint. Inside the second-floor apartment light filters in through heavy curtains, leaving the dining room in semi-darkness. Unpacked boxes stuffed with clothing and other belongings fill the room like furniture.

Incapacitated and confined to a reclining chair, Goldstein’s husband, who also survived the Holocaust, needs assistance from two part-time attendants, paid from meager savings. Still, what he needs is a medical, mechanized chair, a $1,000 item that is beyond their budget.

But in order for Miriam to get a chair for Goldstein’s husband, she needs to know where he was during the war. Individual monetary requests for medical equipment require documentation proving a petitioner survived the Holocaust, even if the survivor is already recognized and receiving aid.

Goldstein brings a handful of papers, and she and Miriam try to piece things together. But although Miriam speaks fluent Yiddish, it’s nearly impossible for her to straighten out the survivor’s fractured tale. The dates don’t add up, and Goldstein can’t lucidly state where her husband spent the war years. After nearly 20 minutes of fruitless back-and-forth, Miriam hastily gathers her things and says goodbye, but not before taking a pitying glance at Goldstein’s husband lying motionless in the next room. He looks frozen and stares vacantly at the wall.

One of the harshest self-criticisms for impoverished survivors is that they feel as though they failed at their second chance at life. While they may have raised a successful family, the need for organizational support only prolongs their identity as survivors. Berkovitz, who unquestionably considers herself poor, expects little out of life. When a friend–also a survivor–died, she said others had to chip in $50 each toward a burial.

“My girlfriends are always crying about money,” she said, sitting at her kitchen table, a blistery January wind blowing outside. “Sometimes you get tired from all the crying. I don’t want to think I need more. But I can’t go ask because I’ll feel like a beggar.”

Josh Tapper is a journalist living in New York.

Josh Tapper is a journalist based in Toronto. His Twitter feed is @joshtapper.

Josh Tapper is a journalist based in Toronto. His Twitter feed is @joshtapper.