January 27, 2009
NEW YORK (RNS) -- As a young woman, Sara Politzer survived the Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen concentration camps. Now, the frail octogenarian is struggling to survive bad health, little money and living alone in New York City.
"It's tough to be old," she said, in her thick Hungarian accent. "I was much stronger before, and I really didn't need anybody, but the last few years, I went down in my health."
Politzer, 82, is among the estimated 138,300 Holocaust survivors left in the United States, second only to Israel's remaining 244,000, according to the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, which administers government and industry restitution payments to Holocaust victims.
Although this dwindling population decreases each year, health and social welfare needs for this elderly group have jumped, prompting the Claims Conference to allocate an additional $18 million to service providers worldwide this year.
The increase came as a relief to hundreds of Jewish agencies that have been hit hard by the economic downturn, especially as they prepare to observe the United Nations-designated Annual International Day of Commemoration to honor the victims of the Holocaust on Jan. 27.
"In these times of severe crisis for Jewish philanthropy, the increase in Claims Conference funds for social services is even more essential to the well-being of elderly Nazi victims," said Julius Berman, conference chairman.
"We are committed to addressing their growing needs as they age and to easing their lives, as much as possible, in their last years."
The Claims Conference, found in 1951, will distribute a total of $168 million to programs in 43 countries this year, including $25 million to the United States, up from $23.3 million last year.
Now that most Holocaust survivors are over the age of 75, the money predominantly pays for medical assistance, food programs, transportation, emergency cash grants, winter heating assistance and socialization programs.
"The numbers of survivors are decreasing, but those who are remaining are all getting older and sicker, and as they age, their needs become greater," said Hillary Kessler-Godin, a Claims Conference spokeswoman.
Part of Politzer's help comes from the New York-based Selfhelp Community Services agency, which assists more than 5,500 Holocaust survivors and helps coordinate Politzer's medical care, bills, housekeeping and in-home nursing care.
Elihu Kover, a Selfhelp spokesman, said Politzer's case, unfortunately, is not unique.
"We have three times the number of clients that we had 10 years ago," he said. "The pool of survivors is getting smaller, but the percentage of them who need help is getting bigger. It's a paradox. And with the economy, food costs more, fuel costs more, and some of their children, who they were relying on, are losing jobs."
Selfhelp received $4.6 million from the Claims Conference this year, up $560,000 from last year. The increase means that Selfhelp can reach out to more of the estimated 40,000 Holocaust survivors in the New York region, the largest concentration in America, Kover said.
Politzer's failing health, which she partly attributes to her World War II experiences, has included two hip replacements and a recent hospitalization for breathing problems. Lately, she has had severe pain in her right arm and shoulder, which she suspects comes from the 30 years she spent working long hours as a seamstress.
"Every day, I suffer so much, I cannot tell you what I go through," she said.
Most of the restitution funds allocated for programs this year come from the Claims Conference Successor Organization, which recovers proceeds from unclaimed Jewish property in the former East Germany. The increase also came from a doubling of the annual grant from Germany to Nazi victims worldwide who require in-home services -- from $20 million to $40 million, Kessler-Godin said.
The Claims Conference will again grant $30,000 to Bet Tzedek Legal Services, a Los Angeles-based agency whose clients include about 2,000 Holocaust survivors seeking pro bono assistance with landlord-tenant disputes, access to health care, government benefit entitlements and restitution issues.
The organization also assists elderly clients who did not experience the Holocaust. But Wendy Levine, a spokeswoman for Bet Tzedek, said survivors tend to need more free legal aid. Jewish organizations estimate that a quarter of America's remaining Holocaust survivors live below the federal poverty line, she said, compared to 10 percent of all Americans over the age of 65, according to the most recent U.S. Census estimate.
"Survivors came over without a support network, often suffering from post-traumatic stress, with language barriers," she explained. "Some were able to create really wonderful lives for themselves here, but others are living without the basic necessities of life. In any given month, they may need to decide between food and medicine and rent."
In Politzer's case, her grown son, who lives nearby, and Selfhelp's services have served as her safety net. But, as her health and the economy seem to simultaneously worsen, she hopes the Claims Conference and local Jewish agencies continue finding the means to support her and the other Holocaust survivors in their final years.
"I'm very short of money," she admitted. "I need a little help -- not a big help, but every little bit will help."
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