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There are thousands of destitute Holocaust survivors living in the New York area

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Helen Berkovitz lives alone in an austere Borough Park apartment, on a sleepy street about 10 blocks south of Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn. She’s blind and diabetic, but the 81-year-old Holocaust survivor is surprisingly spry. Her fourth-floor apartment has all the hallmarks of an elderly woman’s abode: An array of tchotchkes sits on a glass shelving unit around the television, and pictures of bar mitzvahs, weddings, and vacations are arranged symmetrically on the walls above the dining table and in the hallway leading to the door.

Not long ago, Berkovitz applied for Section 8, a subsidized housing program for low-income New Yorkers, only to be denied on the grounds her income from Social Security was too high. Seven months ago, her monthly food-stamp allotment of $57 was reduced to less than $15. After a $96.50 Medicare deduction, Berkovitz receives just over $1,300 each month, a sum that barely covers her needs, which include 24 pills a day. Berkovitz doesn’t fall below the 2010 federal poverty line, but she lives a meager existence, absolutely dependent on the financial support of government programs and Jewish service organizations.

One of an estimated 38,053 Holocaust survivors in the New York City metropolitan area, according to 2010 projections by Selfhelp Community Services, Berkovitz also counts as one of 4,947 survivors categorized as “near poor.” Selfhelp, which, along with a host of other aid organizations, assists cash-strapped survivors, says that 15,855 survivors in the metropolitan area live below the federal poverty line.

With all the Holocaust museums, educational curriculums, and movies, the fact that survivors continue to struggle well into old age is a tragic irony. Survivors reap very little material benefit from their veneration in the culture at large. While their past is often invoked as a cautionary tale, their present all too easily gets lost in the shuffle. In the immediate post-World War II period, survivors were the focal point of Jewish philanthropic efforts, a claim historian Hasia Diner uses to debunk the alleged “myth of silence” among American Jews after the Holocaust. But while basic services, like jobs and housing, were enough to refresh people’s lives, aid slowed to trickle as survivors aged. Rehabilitation went only so far.

The question of what the descendants of Holocaust perpetrators owe to survivors treads a fine line between moral and material restitution. The moral imperative to, essentially, force countries like Germany, Austria, Poland, and Hungary into a lifetime of apology led to the creation of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany in 1952. Since then, Germany has provided nearly $60 billion to pay individual compensation as well as group social service programs. More than half of Selfhelp’s $7 million annual budget comes from Claims Conference funding.

But the Claims Conference, which budgeted nearly $115 million nationally in 2009 to fund direct compensation payments, social service programs such as home care and food programs, and Holocaust education and research initiatives, is an imperfect system. “There are competitive claims,” Ronald Zweig, a historian at New York University and the author of German Reparations and the Jewish World: a History of the Claims Conference, told me. “The Claims Conference wants to use the money for institutions, for the future, but survivors say, ‘We are the Holocaust.’ ”

Helen Berkovitz, like many needy survivors, feels entitled to whatever she asks for. The Claims Conference allocation system, which indirectly funds programs like psychological counseling and social function, doesn’t affect survivors in the same way as hard cash payments. A few years ago she asked the Claims Conference for a one-time donation to pay for a trip to Auschwitz, where her parents died. After a series of petitions, she says, she was denied.

Depending on the type of camp a survivor endured, plus its geographical location and duration of stay, a survivor might be eligible for monthly payments of 291 euros, or around $400, from the German government through the Claims Conference’s Article 2 Fund. Currently, only 9 percent of U.S. survivors receive Article 2 Funds. The rest of the direct payments are earmarked for emergency use only.

In the New York metropolitan area, the Claims Conference supports 10 organizations, which provide the bulk of support. They range from small Orthodox associations, like Borough Park’s Bikur Cholim, to the vast Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, which dispenses funds through 25 Jewish Community Councils.

Selfhelp attends to around 5,600 Holocaust survivors every year in the five boroughs and Nassau County. Since its founding in 1936, Selfhelp’s mission has been to help émigrés from Nazi Germany and, after the war, to remain the “last surviving relative to Holocaust survivors and other victims of Nazi persecution.” It provides everything from laundry and transportation to subsidized health care and financial advice, as well as community-building programs throughout the year and emergency cash assistance to cover utilities, medical bills, food, and clothing. In addition to the natural effects of aging, survivors suffer from a multitude of psychological and social debilities, often stemming from what the vice president for Nazi Victim Services at Selfhelp refers to as the “big black hole” existential question, “Why am I here, and why is my brother not?”

These are questions that face caseworkers across all survivor aid organizations, like Miriam, a client coordinator with the Council of Jewish Organizations of Flatbush, part of the Metropolitan Council network, who visits Berkovitz every couple weeks. (Miriam declined to give her last name.) The visits often delve deeper than banal conversation and become reminiscences. On a mid-December day, Miriam sat across from Berkovitz and teased out her life story. Berkovitz’s survival is likely familiar to anyone with a passing knowledge of the Holocaust, but what has happened to her since often goes unnoticed.

In 1944, the 15-year-old Berkovitz and her family were relocated from Dej, a rural town in what was then northwestern Hungary, to a ghetto on the forested outskirts of town, along with 8,000 other Jews. In June of that year, the ghetto was liquidated, and the residents were herded onto trains bound for Auschwitz.

At the camp, Berkovitz was separated from her mother by Dr. Josef Mengele. She remembers crying for her mother and asking a Polish woman where the guards had taken her parents. The woman, she says, pointed to the smoke billowing from the crematoria, darkening the sky. Berkovitz remembers thinking the smoke was going up to God. Housed in a children’s barrack for eight months, Berkovitz was eventually sent to work in a Siemens factory in Nuremburg. There she fused platinum for airplane parts until her liberation in May 1945. It took the ragged teenager four weeks to return to Dej, now in Romania.

For the next two years, Berkovitz worked as a maid in Klausenburg, a nearby town, before marrying another survivor. The couple left Hungary, spent some time in a displaced-persons camp in Hamburg, and finally settled in Israel, in a small farming community near the Gaza Strip. Without education or money, she and her husband worked as farmers. Berkovitz later attended hairdressing school outside the settlement.

Like other settlers in 1967, Berkovitz, her husband, and their two children left for the United States. The family moved to Borough Park but found that extended family ignored requests to meet. And in New York, misfortune piled on. Berkovitz failed her licensing test to practice hairdressing. The language barrier was insuperable. And the wig-making store she opened in 1973 folded two years later, unable to compete, she says, with Russian immigrants selling cheaper products. Not long after, her husband, who worked at a Queens bakery, was paralyzed in a hit-and-run, leaving him incapacitated and in need of personal care until his death in 1999. Five years after the accident, possibly as a result of stress, Berkovitz suffered a heart attack, forcing her to send her husband to a primary-care facility on Staten Island, where she visited each day.

The final indignity came when, in 1959, Berkovitz had registered for reparations, hiring a Tel Aviv lawyer to manage the process, giving him power of attorney, and then never seeing the 34,000 marks (roughly $8,500) she was owed.

Berkovitz can trace these lines that led her to near poverty, but she can’t explain them. And she’s not alone. On any given day, Miriam, a boisterous 58-year-old daughter of Holocaust survivors, might visit up to 10 clients, checking in and chatting, often absorbing unwieldy stories from the war years. While caseworkers provide a comforting presence and find quick-fix solutions to improve quality of life, they sometimes represent the result of Claims Conference allocations, money that survivors feel could go directly into their pockets.

“I’m old, but I’m not meshuggah,” Berkovitz says. “Why does Bikur Cholim need 60 people on staff? They come and tell jokes and they need a salary?” To some extent, Miriam is spared from this complaint, and Berkovitz quickly notes her appreciation of the time Miriam spends chatting.

“There’s a tremendous amount of resentment,” Miriam concedes. “Because they did go though a terrible time, they do feel they should get a bit more, and we’re not doing enough for them. Fair enough. Unfortunately, the money is just not there.”

Following Miriam on her rounds makes the point clear. On an overcast late January day, Miriam moves at a quick pace, scurrying from her car to a client’s front door with determined urgency. She mostly visits women. Today, she’s here to visit Sylvia Goldstein, an 87-year-old Auschwitz survivor. The front door of Goldstein’s building is cracked and grimy; the screen is flecked with white paint. Inside the second-floor apartment light filters in through heavy curtains, leaving the dining room in semi-darkness. Unpacked boxes stuffed with clothing and other belongings fill the room like furniture.

Incapacitated and confined to a reclining chair, Goldstein’s husband, who also survived the Holocaust, needs assistance from two part-time attendants, paid from meager savings. Still, what he needs is a medical, mechanized chair, a $1,000 item that is beyond their budget.

But in order for Miriam to get a chair for Goldstein’s husband, she needs to know where he was during the war. Individual monetary requests for medical equipment require documentation proving a petitioner survived the Holocaust, even if the survivor is already recognized and receiving aid.

Goldstein brings a handful of papers, and she and Miriam try to piece things together. But although Miriam speaks fluent Yiddish, it’s nearly impossible for her to straighten out the survivor’s fractured tale. The dates don’t add up, and Goldstein can’t lucidly state where her husband spent the war years. After nearly 20 minutes of fruitless back-and-forth, Miriam hastily gathers her things and says goodbye, but not before taking a pitying glance at Goldstein’s husband lying motionless in the next room. He looks frozen and stares vacantly at the wall.

One of the harshest self-criticisms for impoverished survivors is that they feel as though they failed at their second chance at life. While they may have raised a successful family, the need for organizational support only prolongs their identity as survivors. Berkovitz, who unquestionably considers herself poor, expects little out of life. When a friend–also a survivor–died, she said others had to chip in $50 each toward a burial.

“My girlfriends are always crying about money,” she said, sitting at her kitchen table, a blistery January wind blowing outside. “Sometimes you get tired from all the crying. I don’t want to think I need more. But I can’t go ask because I’ll feel like a beggar.”

Josh Tapper is a journalist living in New York.

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Ruth Gutmann says:

I agree with Mrs. Berkovitz, who evidently came from the same town (Dej) as my mother. There are far too many “middle-men”. These organizations are businesses. Not even Self-help is as good as it once was. It has stopped collecting money from its long time supporters. (I know because I was one of them). It is a terrible indignity that these women have to rely on the meager mercy of these organizations. Where, incidentally, are their children?

Why don’t they get medicaid? They should be entitled to home health aides and electric wheel chairs, etc.

kalman y. boeta says:

It is a horrible disgrace the survivors have to live like that, while all the museums, etc. have such budgets, as said. They are the Holocaust.

I am sorry the article doesn’t recommend where best to donate money or how to volunteer to help. Does anyone know much about iVolunteer (

This is not for public consumption:

I live in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. If someone could pay for the transportation, I have a used Jazzy Motorized wheelchair that I would be delighted to give the chair to her. I’m a stroke survivor with limited income, but have two chairs and would be delighted to give her one of them.

Please contact me via my email ( I’ve no idea of how much it would cost to ship it to New York but knowing that someone who needs a chair has it.

Shalom….Beverly Kurtin; Hurst TX

Rebecca says:

as the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, I can answer the above post…we are too traumatized by our parents abusiveness and secondary PTSD. It is not right that many Holocaust survivors go hungry or can’t pay for electricity. I won’t argue with that at all and they should be receiving state assistance as well as assistance from our own Jewish community. But although I would like to help my parent, I can’t because he is so verbally abusive. And it is not just me, there are many, many children of survivors who are so traumatized that they have no contact with their parents. It is one of those intentionally overlooked side effects of Holocaust glorification. We honor our survivors on Yom Hashoa but ignore the effects on the subsequent generation. It’s easier to ask for restitution than to address the psychological impact of the terrible, horrible effect of being a survivor and having a family post Holocaust. There are survivors living around the world and they are dependent on Jewish organizations. It is not limited to NYC. I have a feeling though that other locations may be slightly more efficient. I could be wrong.

Rebecca says:

I was referring to the question of “where are their children” not the comment preceding mine

Dorothy Wachsstock says:

Look in any telephone book in the New York Area and you will find many Jewish organizations that supposedly offer assistance to Jews. Not true.

Even the Jewish organization that was created to help Jewish immigrants and receives money to help them,so since there are few Jewish immigrants that need help, instead of helping poor Holocaust survivors, are now helping other ethnics. Is that fair to the donors who think it is only for Jewish immigrants to assimilate? I think it may be the Henry Street Settlement but not sure.

Money given to these so called Jewish organizations created by Jews to help Jews now do not help Jews anymore but have not notified their Jewish donors.

Shame on every Jew that belongs to any of these organizations. I know a young man who needed some help to help an ailing father while he had to have surgery and Java refused it since he may have been able to work afterwards. Other ethnics were helped but not Jews anymore.

Let us also face the fact that most of these Jewish organizations do not go out of their way to hire unemployed Jewish people but want to be seen as liberal and deliberately do not hire many Jews.

What has happened to our compassion for ouw own that wealthy Jews give to minority programs, as does the ADL. When I last called their office some years back, I discovered accicently of a program for minoritys only in Brooklyn (isn’t that discrimination against white children?)

Time for all of these Jewish philanthropists to start helping Jewish people before their donations go to other organizations. These wealthy Jews would not be so wealthy if they were not helped earlier by other Jews who paved the way fighting anti-semitism so that these philanthropists could go forward and thrive.

In New York City, there are supposedly 400,000 Jews living under the poverty line. What say you, my Jewish brethnen?

Fnord says:

Someones got to pay for them settlements, I guess?

I agree with Rebecca. I too am a 54 year old 2nd generation daughter. I too experience a detach from my 90 year old mother. I have two brothers that live near by her. I live in Israel, they live in the ny area. She lives in a assisted living center. All her physical needs are taken care of but even my brothers that live nearby, one 2 hours away and one 10 minutes away have a hard time visiting. Of course they visit but the emotional detach is almost too hard to bear.The years of trauma have taken their toll on us.I tried getting help here in Israel but there are no funds for 2nd generation therapy. I see the transgeneration effects on my children and on my brothers children.Any help out there for them??

Dennis Baum says:

The frustration expressed in these posts is understandable. Mrs. Berkovitz’s story is heartbreaking. It is because of the Mrs. Berkovitzs of the world that I serve on the board of Selfhelp Community Services, following in the footsteps of my late father. Taking care of the last generation of survivors is our collective responsibility and one that we at Selfhelp don’t take lightly.

We provide a comprehensive safety net of services for survivors in the boroughs and Nassau County and I urge you to contact us at (212) 971.7621 if you know of a Holocaust survivor in need.

Elderly survivors are coping with challenges we can’t even begin to fathom, especially as they age and become sicker and frailer. In addition to all the “normal” problems that accompany old age– physical, psychological, social and emotional — the effects of deprivation and trauma from the Holocaust have had a profound impact on their quality of life.

Over the past year alone, Selfhelp provided care to 5,700 survivors, the largest number in our history. We have a dedicated and compassionate staff who hold the hands of survivors like Mrs. Berkovitz daily. In addition, our Project Legacy Committee and Selfhelp NextGen, both comprised of second and third generation descendants, are taking up the cause and assisting through volunteering, fundraising and educating others about how they can help.

Many in the community may be unaware of the dire need. To make a gift that will help the thousands of Holocaust survivors served by Selfhelp, please call (212) 971.7621 or email Thank you Josh Tapper for writing about a subject so close to our hearts. It is our responsibility – the 2nd and 3rd generation descendants – to care for these fragile survivors.

Dennis Baum
Co, Chair, Project Legacy
Secretary, Board of Directors
Selfhelp Community Services, Inc.

The Jewish Community Council of Greater Coney Island has a wonderful program that provides friendly visiting for for Holocaust Survivors. Although there are many issues that these clients face on a daily basis, seeing a warm and friendly face can go a long way towards brightening their lives. I have been fortunate enough to meet a lot of survivors in the Brooklyn and Manhattan areas and their stories are amazing, and their strength is inspiring. Please feel free to refer anyone who would benefit from our friendly visiting services. You can email
or call 718-449-5000 ext 2216.


Where is the money? Why isn’t it there for these Holocaust survivors who suffered unimaginable abominations!?

“The money is not there,” is exactly what I was told when my mother, a survivor of Auschwitz, needed more home care than either I or she was able to afford. I was forced to put her into a nursing home, where she suffered due to poor care in the last few months of her life. By the way, my mother was very loving, but overprotective. My father was loving, but distant. Neither one of them was either verbally or physically abusive. They adored me as well my children, who adored them also.

However, I do believe that children of Holocaust survivors had a very difficult role growing up. I felt that there were many instances when I had to take the role of an adult and not that of a child even when I was a child. After moving to the USA, I especially needed to be there to help my parents due to their language deficits. In the end, it was difficult to make sure they received the appropriate care especially because I lived 1,000 miles away.

Jewish organizations, please find the money to subsidize the remaining holocaust survivors! There are so precious few left! Also,do remember the children who also have their own set of problems and remember the grandchildren too!

It is an outrage, the myth of Holocaust Reparations for survivors. The reparations were negotiated and received only with the survivor’s testimonials were mostly allocated to create institutions, and employment opportunities. The lawyers representing the survivor’s collected millions, the institutions continue to reap millions, while the true victims receive NILCH!
How pathetic.
Our parents were once again, exploited. Who could have imagined this.

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There are thousands of destitute Holocaust survivors living in the New York area

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