The struggle of Holocaust survivors in Israel

With many Holocaust survivors facing financial hardships, the Israeli government has pledged $290m in aid.

Holocaust survivor Dov Jacobovitch says he cannot always afford his medications [Gregg Carlstrom/Al Jazeera]

Tel Aviv – The Israeli government recently announced a plan to provide nearly one billion shekels ($290m) in aid for Holocaust survivors, a belated attempt to help what advocates say is a long-struggling population.

The programme is aimed at people like Dov Jacobovitch, 86, who spent two years in Nazi concentration camps before being liberated by the Russian army in 1945.

The Romanian-born Jacobovitch moved to Israel in 1947, fought in two wars, and ran a business selling crafts. Today, he lives in a state-run seniors’ home in a rough part of southern Tel Aviv; his only income is from benefits provided by Israel and by Germany, which gives lifetime pensions to some Holocaust survivors. The payments were recently increased, but still total only 4,000 shekels ($1,150) per month.

He jokes about his situation, calling his one-room apartment “the villa”, but admits that life is not easy. On the table are a half-dozen pill bottles, which he cannot always afford to refill; he does not have enough money for new clothes.

“It’s not easy. I used to live once, la dolce vita. Now I live like la dolce pita,” he quipped. “I don’t know how long I can carry on like this.”

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Jacobovitch’s story is not unusual. A report issued last week by the Foundation for the Benefit of Holocaust Victims in Israel, a local NGO, found that one in four of Israel’s 193,000 Holocaust survivors live in poverty. Seventy thousand of them asked the foundation for help last year, and the vast majority of those receive less than 5,000 shekels per month.

Yair Lapid, the finance minister and the son of a Holocaust survivor, called the situation “an injustice of many decades”.

At a press conference unveiling the report, another survivor, Chaya Kujikaro, described trying to support herself and her disabled husband on a modest pension: “Sometimes we just want to end our lives, but this is not how we want to go,” she said.

In five or six years, half of the survivors won't be with us. We won't be able to do anything to help them.

- Ronny Kalinsky, CEO, Foundation for the Benefit of Holocaust Victims in Israel

Kujikaro angrily asked the government why people who immigrated to Israel after 1953 “are not considered Holocaust survivors”. Under the terms of a decades-old agreement, Germany does not pay those survivors; they survive only on their tiny pensions from the Israeli government.

“It’s too much… you expect that those people won’t have any problems living in dignity at the end of their lives,” foundation CEO Ronny Kalinsky told Al Jazeera. “Some of the survivors have to live on 3,000 shekels a month. That’s very low.”

Kalinsky added: “Every day 37 people pass away, so if you calculate it, that’s 13,000 people a year. In five or six years, half of the survivors won’t be with us. We won’t be able to do anything to help them.”

The new programme will increase the monthly pensions, particularly for the post-1953 group, some of whom could see their payments triple to 5,400 shekels depending on their other income and medical condition. The government will also provide free prescription drugs and expanded access to home care.

“We have a moral obligation to see to it that Holocaust survivors living among us can live out their lives honourably,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said.

Jacobovitch said the changes will give him access to the medicines he cannot always afford. But the extra spending will do little to address the emotional problems many survivors struggle with.

The foundation’s study found that 45 percent of survivors feel “alone”. Many saw their families wiped out during the Holocaust. In Jacobovitch’s case, four of his six brothers and sisters were killed; today his only surviving sibling is a 91-year-old sister, who has been bedridden for nearly three years.

He sees his ex-wife every few weeks, and talks “from time to time” with his son, who lives in the United States. Occasionally he goes on trips organised by his home, but even those are too expensive to attend regularly.

“How I’m surviving, I don’t know,” he told Al Jazeera. “God keeps me alive to punish me, that’s what I think.”

Source: Al Jazeera