No Time to Waste for Ageing Holocaust Survivors
Updated: Apr 29
Considering the huge investments in Holocaust monuments, educational centers, and organizations, you would think that Holocaust survivors are one group of people that don't have to worry about anything.
Certainly not where their next meal is coming from.
Unfortunately, of the estimated 200,000 elderly survivors living in Israel today, approximately one-quarter are living in poverty (that's 50,000 people!). Aviva Silberman, the founder of Aviv Hashoah, a non-profit that helps survivors claim their benefits at no charge, explained part of the rampant poverty, "Due to their wartime experience, some survivors continued to suffer psychological and physical problems that hindered their ability to work."
However, there are many organizations that distribute funds to survivors for this very purpose, including Israel’s Finance Ministry, Germany, the Conference on Jewish Material Claims against Germany, the Foundation for the Benefit of Holocaust Victims in Israel, and other agencies. So how is it that 50,000 survivors in Israel still don't have enough money to live with dignity?
One of the main reasons is that although survivors have benefits due to them, the bureaucratic maze and the amount of different reparations committees make it near impossible for them to claim their benefits.
This is not a new problem, but now there is a new solution. Aviva Silberman founded Aviv Hashoah in 2007 to ensure survivors receive their benefits. Originally from Switzerland, Aviva made aliyah at age 18. In 1991, while enrolled as a law student, there was a prolonged student strike and she decided to use her extra time to volunteer at a nearby old age home. Since she spoke German, she offered to visit any German-speaking residents. The social worker told her that they had many Holocaust survivors at the home that were receiving letters from Germany but couldn't make sense of them.
Aviva started helping with one, two, then three requests and it just took off from there. After filing the requests, the survivors suddenly started receiving some of the funds that were owed to them for many decades. That was the turning point when she saw just how rampant this problem was and how she was uniquely positioned to help.
Today, Aviv Hashoah has helped over 60,000 Holocaust survivors to receive rights and benefits valued at 650 million shekalim or ($200 million USD) - all without taking one penny from them.
Yaffa Einhorn is one of the beneficiaries of Silberman's vision. Einhorn came to Aviv Hashoah after working with private lawyers to access her benefits, but who were also taking a huge percentage of the funds that she needed to live on.
"Before I came to Aviv Hashoah I received letters I didn't understand and my medical disability was set very low. Aviva took one look at my situation and told me I deserve much more - and she helped me get it."
“We encourage Holocaust survivors to come forward – to ask about their benefits. Because in many cases what they were told they weren’t entitled to several years ago, they may be entitled to today,” Silberman explained.
The reparation parameters are so complicated that no two survivors' benefit requests are alike. To push through this barrier, Aviv Hashoah, in conjunction with JDC-Eshel Israel started Community Entitlement Centers that are staffed by Attorneys specializing in Holocaust survivor’s rights. There are currently 18 centers operating all around Israel, where Holocaust survivors can schedule an appointment with an attorney who will map out a comprehensive list of their rights and walk them through every step of the process until they receive an answer.
"I have one sentence to say to the holocaust survivors, go to Aviv. The lawyers of Aviv will take all your problems, and solve them - free of charge!"
Additionally, approximately 20% of the Holocaust survivors living in Israel are homebound, some are disabled, some are chronically ill and some are being treated in public nursing homes. Aviv operates a network of volunteers that provides personal assistance to the survivors in their homes to make sure no survivor is forgotten.
Shlomo, a resident of Tel Aviv, called the organization’s advisory hotline to help his mother, Hana, a 95-year-old survivor born in Lithuania. Hana had been in the Vilna Ghetto but since she came to live in Israel, she has never received any financial assistance. One of the lawyers, Adv. Shein completed all the necessary application forms and sent them to the relevant authorities.
Recently, the request for a social pension was granted and it was determined that Hana would receive a monthly pension of €239 and a retroactive payment of €51,000. At age 95, for the first time in her life, she has the funds to pay for her medical expenses without worrying.
Aviv Hashoah is currently ramping up its efforts because they want to help more survivors earlier.
"We're in a race of time because most of the Holocaust survivors are above 80 and it's becoming increasingly difficult for them to manage all the red tape by themselves and figure out what they have coming to them and from whom," Silberman said.
Benefits should be easy to access, and that's what Aviv Hashoah is doing for survivors.
Because it's time for them to stop worrying about where their next meal is coming from - and to live a life of more ease and dignity.