Israel Struggles to Care for Holocaust Survivors In Israel, an estimated one-third of Holocaust survivors, about 90,000 people, live in poverty. As the survivors age, their medical bills are soaring. The Israeli government and private organizations say they cannot keep up.

Israel Struggles to Care for Holocaust Survivors

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JACKI LYDEN, host:

On this day, 62 years ago, the Auschwitz concentration camp was liberated. About 250,000 survivors of the Holocaust live in Israel today. And, as NPR's Linda Gradstein reports, up to one-third of them live below the poverty line.

LINDA GRADSTEIN: Seventy-three-year-old Rosa Zusman(ph) was eight years old when the German army approached her native Ukraine. She and her family fled ahead of the army and ended up in Uzbekistan. But many members of her family who stayed behind were killed in the Holocaust. After the war, Rosa returned to Ukraine and married.

Although she was never in a concentration camp, Rosa is considered a Holocaust survivor since her life was disrupted by the German occupation. Fifteen years ago, she immigrated to Israel with her husband. She received a one-time payment of $3,000 from the German government but says her husband - whose story is similar - never got anything.

Ms. ROSA ZUSMAN (Holocaust Survivor): (Through Translator) I want someone to help my husband get money from the German government, like I did. We filed papers with the Israeli government 10 years ago but we never got any money. Now they say it's too late.

GRADSTEIN: The Zusmans subsist on Israeli Social Security, less than a thousand dollars a month for both of them. Rosa says that after rent and utilities, there's not much left. So every day she eats her lunch, the main meal of the day, in soup kitchen in downtown Jerusalem.

There are an estimated 90,000 Holocaust survivors in Israel, like the Zusmans, living at or below the poverty line. Most of them are in their 70s and 80s and their medical expenses are growing fast. Israel has socialized medicine but many expensive drugs and treatments are not covered.

(Soundbite of singing)

GRADSTEIN: Outside the prime minister's office in Jerusalem this week, several hundred survivors and supporters gathered to demand more government help.

Rabbi Michael Melchior, a Labour Party member in the Knesset, says the government must do more to help poor survivors.

Rabbi MICHAEL MELCHIOR (Member, Knesset): Unfortunately, the state of Israel has not understood its historical responsibility towards these people. And I'm ashamed. In the name of the state of Israel, I'm ashamed that that is the situation. And these are people not only who survived the hell of the Holocaust, but who have built up the state of Israel.

GRADSTEIN: Many here say the money is there to help the survivors but it is not being used wisely. The German government has paid hundreds of millions of dollars in Holocaust reparations. But there are competing demands for the money. Some has gone directly to the Israeli government, which used the money in the 1950s and '60s to build schools, roads, and factories. Some of the money goes directly to the survivors themselves who receive monthly stipends. And about $30 million a year is sent to the former Soviet Union to help survivors there. Israeli organizations say the number of Jews still there has dwindled, as survivors have died or moved to Israel, and more of the money should be sent here.

Some groups also say that too much money, tens of millions of dollars, is used for educational or memorial programs rather than to help the survivors. But Rob Rosette(ph), the head of the library at Yad Vashem - Israel's main Holocaust museum in Jerusalem - says educating people about the Holocaust is also important.

Mr. ROB ROSETTE (Library Director, Yad Vashem Museum): One leg is the commemoration. Another leg is the documentation that we collect about what happened and in dealing - understanding the documentation: researching, writing about understanding it. The third leg is education on all levels. And the fourth leg is dealing with the survivors. I mean it has to do with all of these things. None of them should be neglected.

GRADSTEIN: But others here say the survivors should come first. Israeli cabinet Minister Rafi Eitan in charge of Holocaust survivors says he needs $100 million a year for five years to eliminate poverty among the survivors.

Mr. RAFI EITAN (Member, Knesset): Any survivor should finish his life in respect and with all necessities provided for him.

GRADSTEIN: But for many survivors it may soon be too late. At the soup kitchen in Jerusalem, Rosa Zusman eats half her portion of chicken and rice. Then she puts down her fork and packs up the rest to take home to her husband for his lunch.

Linda Gradstein, NPR News, Jerusalem.

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