‘We cannot abandon them in their old age’

‘We cannot abandon them in their old age’

Claims Conference secures additional funding to benefit survivors and provide Holocaust education

Susan Greenbaum in the JFCS food pantry, the Corner Market. (Courtesy JFCS)
Susan Greenbaum in the JFCS food pantry, the Corner Market. (Courtesy JFCS)

Last week, the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany — it’s more informally called the Claims Conference — announced that it had finalized negotiations with the German Federal Ministry of Finance on behalf of Holocaust survivors.

The negotiations resulted in approximately $1.4 billion in direct compensation and social welfare services for survivors, and it will affect more than 128,000 around the world.

The Claims Conference meets with the German ministry every year, Greg Schneider, the conference’s executive vice president, said. The delegation presents a tremendous amount of data about the numbers of survivors and their current needs.

It also works to ensure that the German government understands what happened during the Holocaust and how the effects of those events continue to be felt today — financially, psychologically, physically, and medically. “We want it to not only be about the cost, about the number of people, about the data,” Mr. Schneider said. “Of course, because we’re dealing with governments, particularly the finance ministry, that’s essential — we can’t get away from that — but we also want it to be about the people.”

So the conference tries to expose the German government representatives to the history, and to some of the people who were very much affected by that history.  “We brought them to Israel, we brought them to Yad Vashem, we brought them to a soup kitchen, we brought them into the homes of survivors,” Mr. Schneider said. “And we brought them to Warsaw, where they went to the Polin Museum, which is about the 1,000-year history of the Jewish community in Poland.

“They came to Washington, and we took them to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and to spend time with survivors.

“It’s really about bringing them into a home with a survivor, giving them the opportunity to hold that survivor’s hand, to listen to their story, to hear what happened to them during the Shoah. The negotiations are about money, about what the money can buy, but they are also really personal. They are really about an individual person, what they suffered, and what they continue to suffer today.”

There also is a political component — the conference works closely with many governments, especially the United States, in explaining the importance of Germany’s ongoing commitment to Holocaust survivors. “So it’s a complex range of political, historical, financial, medical, emotional,” Mr. Schneider said. “And we spent a lot of time talking about how we’re reaching the end of the generation of survivors, so it was important that these commitments be made now.

“This is the last chance to make a difference in their lives.”

The result of the negotiations was an increase in funding in three key areas — compensation for individual survivors, social welfare services for them, and Holocaust education.

Compensation payments are distributed directly to survivors. People who spent time in concentration camps, extermination camps, or ghettos generally qualify for pensions, Mr. Schneider explained. Survivors who fled from the Nazis — mostly Russian Jews who escaped the Einsatzgruppen, the Nazi mobile killing units that were charged with murdering entire Jewish communities — are entitled not to pensions, but to one-time payments.

“Our argument was that these are people who suffered tremendously,” Mr. Schneider said. “The Einsatzgruppen murdered between one-and-a-half and two million Jews, and for any individual survivor, murdered most of their family, most of their community, most of the town that they lived in at the time. And the people who were able to flee and are alive today, overwhelmingly, are the poorest of survivors, and they desperately need the money.”

The payments originally were established as one-time hardship payments. Negotiations during covid lockdowns resulted in three supplemental payments for eligible survivors. As a result of the current negotiations, hardship payments will continue for another four years, through 2027, with a built-in increase for inflation each year. More than 128,000 survivors are eligible to receive these payments. “That means that for the next four years, every Holocaust survivor is entitled to something,” Mr. Schneider said. “Either they get a pension or they are entitled to this one-time payment.”

Greg Schneider

The agreement also increased funding for home-care services for survivors. The Claims Conference allocates money to more than 300 agencies in 83 countries that provide home care and other social welfare services to them. These agencies now serve more than 120,000 survivors. The negotiations resulted in $888.9 million in funding from the German government for home-care services in 2024. That is an increase of $105 million from the $783 million the German government provided for 2023.

“Holocaust survivors are dying,” Mr. Schneider said. “Unfortunately we’re losing more than 10% of our survivors every year. However, we argued successfully that for those survivors who remain alive, the needs are growing.

“There’s a survivor today who’s perfectly fine, not getting home care, and will unfortunately fall and break her hip and will now need home care. People get older, sicker, more disabled, and of course they spend down their assets.

“We are still in the years where the needs are increasing — despite the decreasing number of survivors, we need more hours of home care in total for the Holocaust survivors who remain alive,” Mr. Schneider continued. The conference projects that needs will continue to increase at least through 2024, and it presented the extensive data underlying these projections. It expects that needs will plateau in 2025 for a year or two, and then sharply decline because the mortality rate will be so high.

Inflation also is a key component. “The cost of home care increases from one year to the next, so we need more money just to provide the same number of home care hours next year as we did this year,” Mr. Schneider said. “We spent a lot of time projecting what the inflation will be. We’re working in more than 40 countries, so it’s a lot of data.”

Susan Greenbaum is the CEO of Jewish Family and Children’s Services of Northern New Jersey in Teaneck. That’s one of the agencies that receives funding from the Claims Conference to provide case management, home care, and other necessary services to survivors. Ms. Greenbaum said that JFCSNNJ serves more than 300 Holocaust survivors in Bergen, Hudson, and Passaic counties, and that the Claims Conference is “absolutely wonderful to work with.

“As the survivor population ages, the number of survivors needing services is increasing,” Ms. Greenbaum continued. “We’re getting new referrals every month, and home care is by far the greatest need because it is so expensive. So this additional funding is badly needed and deeply appreciated.

“The large allocations we have received in the past have not been enough to address the needs of all the Holocaust survivors we work with. Hopefully this additional funding will help us come close to meeting the real need.

“We are enormously appreciative of the privilege to serve our survivors in this incredibly respectful and appropriate way.”

The third piece of the agreement increases funding for Holocaust education. “In the old days, survivors used to come to the Claims Conference to talk about pensions — ‘How can I get a pension?’ ‘When do I get my payment?’ etc., Mr. Schneider said. “Then it became more about home care. Now, the most common question that we get from survivors is ‘who will remember us? Who will tell our stories?’ And so we’ve really begun to focus on this area of Holocaust education.”

Last year, the German government agreed for the first time to provide the Claims Conference with funding for Holocaust education around the world. “It’s important that the German government understands that the responsibility extends beyond,” Mr. Schneider said. “That we can’t stop Holocaust survivors from dying, but we can stop their stories from dying with them. And we must.

“And the German government is willing to partner with us on this going forward.”

The agreement established budgets through 2027 for Holocaust education, which allows the conference to plan and fund multiyear projects. “It really reflects the ongoing commitment of the German government to ensuring the wide dissemination of the lessons of the Holocaust,” Mr. Schneider said.

“There has been a rise in antisemitism around the world, and increased Holocaust denial, and we spent a lot of time talking about that. At the same time, fewer and fewer survivors are able to go to schools and tell their stories to students. As we move from witness to history, from memory to history, how do we replace that? How do we ensure what Holocaust stories and heroism and survival and death will look like in the coming years?

“Ultimately, these Jews were abandoned in their youth. Nobody cared if they lived or died, everybody abandoned them.

“We cannot abandon them in their old age. That’s kind of a summary of all these programs. That’s really what it’s all about. “

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