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One-Fourth of Holocaust Survivors in U.S. Living Below Poverty Line
Stewart Ain

The Jewish WeekOne-fourth of Holocaust survivors in the United States are living below the poverty level, not the 7 percent previously believed, figures from the latest national Jewish population study show. And a similar study of New York-area survivors found half living below the poverty level.

American survivors are citing the studies to buttress their claim that they are being shortchanged in the distribution of the $1.25 billion Swiss bank settlement of Holocaust-era claims because the current allocation plan gives them only 4 percent of the money.

But others suggest that the data is not conclusive, and the judge overseeing the settlement decided to use the existing formula in ordering this week that $60 million in interest from the settlement be distributed beginning in January to supplement survivors' benefits worldwide over the next 72 years.

Burt Neuborne, the lead counsel in the settlement, said in court papers that the National Jewish Population Study 2000-1 puts the number of American survivors living below the poverty level at about 30,000, but that it is "unclear" what proportion have unmet needs "similar to the needs of destitute survivors residing in the Former Soviet Union."

"It appears from available data that the percentage of survivors in the FSU lacking family support is twice the level of isolation than in the United States," he wrote. "And virtually no alternative sources of financial or social support exist in the FSU. At this time, therefore, the National Jewish Population Study does not call the allocation formula into question."

But Samuel Dubbin, a Florida lawyer representing the Holocaust Survivors Foundation -- comprised of more than 50 survivor organizations in the U.S. -- argued that the survey sponsored by United Jewish Communities found that survivors are five times more likely to be living below the poverty line than non-survivors.

"These data emphatically support the relief we have been seeking for several years -- a substantial infusion of resources from the settlement of the victims' claims against the Swiss to address the unmet and urgent home and health care and emergency needs of survivors in the United States," Dubbin wrote in a Nov. 6 letter to Brooklyn Federal Judge Edward Korman, who is overseeing the settlement.

Dubbin said that in light of the survey, his prior request for $30 million annually for the next seven years for American survivors -- as calculated by the Association of Jewish Family and Children's Service Agencies -- "should be regarded as modest." The association, Dubbin said, is the one organization that has the most contact with survivors in a social service setting in the U.S.

He also appealed to Korman to immediately release $200 million of the more than $600 million being held in reserve to pay Holocaust-era Swiss bank depositors and their heirs who were denied access to their money after World War II. He asked that $50 million of the $200 million be set aside exclusively for American survivors.

But Korman said this week that the Holocaust Survivors Foundation has "failed to establish that it has legal standing to object to the recommendation" regarding the distribution plan.

He said those with alternative plans for the disposition of unclaimed residual funds from the settlement should be submitted by Dec. 31. The court's special master, Judah Gribetz, will review the plans and make his final recommendation regarding the distribution by March 15, Korman said. An April 1 hearing would be held on that recommendation.

Neuborne dismissed Dubbin's argument that the judge could not legally favor one group of survivors over another. And he noted that of the more than $500 million distributed or earmarked to date from the settlement, 20 percent has gone to American survivors. It is estimated that there are more than 830,000 survivors worldwide.

David Schaecter, president of the Holocaust Survivors Foundation, said by phone from Coconut Grove, Fla., that the judge's refusal to change the allocation system -- 75 percent of the money goes to Jewish survivors in the former Soviet Union, 12.5 percent to those in Israel and the rest to those elsewhere -- "confirms our anxieties that nobody really cares about the survivors in the United States."

Schaecter said Korman had promised the American survivors that their needs would be taken care of but has reneged on that commitment in the belief that Jews in the former Soviet Union are in greater need of help.

"How do they become the Solomons to make the decision that one who is destitute and hungry here does not have the same need and is as helpless as those in the former Soviet Union?" he asked, referring to Korman and Neuborne. "It doesn't matter whether the survivor lives in Boston or Belarus."

But Neuborne argued in court papers that the resources available to survivors in the United States far exceed those in the former Soviet Union.

"Given the array of supplemental resources available in the United States that are simply unavailable in the former Soviet Union -- such as Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security payments, food stamps, home attendant services in many states, utility bill subsidies, transportation subsidies, adult day care centers and private charities, to say nothing of family resources -- it is unclear what proportion of the 30,000 needy survivors identified in the [population survey] have unmet needs of a critical nature similar to the needs of the destitute survivors residing in the FSU."

Neuborne said in an interview that the judge must wait before distributing the money set aside for those with unclaimed bank accounts. He explained that a search of bank records against claims is not complete.

He noted that beginning in December, the banks plan to begin running 3,000 claims against the records of all 4.1 million Holocaust-era bank depositors. Until now, only a fraction of those bank records had been checked.

Should a significant number of claims match bank records, Neuborne said plans to distribute the money set aside for bank depositors would be postponed.

The two surveys of American survivors -- the national study and the local Community Study 2002 conducted by UJA-Federation -- provide useful data in assessing their needs.

The national survey found that survivors are "more economically and socially vulnerable than non-victims [of Nazi persecution], report poorer health and more disabilities that limit daily activities compared to non-victims, and have somewhat greater social service needs than non-victims."

It also suggested that survivors who arrived in the U.S. after 1965 -- primarily those from the former Soviet Union -- are "especially vulnerable to economic and social difficulties."

The New York study found 55,000 Jewish survivors living on Long Island, in the city and Westchester -- about half of the survivors in the entire country. They represent 15 percent of all Jews age 57 and older -- their median age is 72. Fifty-eight percent of them are women.

One-fourth of these survivors live alone -- their median age of 76 is considerably older than survivors who live with one or more people -- and 44 percent of the survivors are at least 75.

Half of the New York area survivors live in Russian-speaking Jewish households. In Brooklyn, the figure is 75 percent while in Manhattan it is only 7 percent. And 67 percent of these survivors moved to the U.S. since 1990, while 95 percent of survivors from non-Russian speaking Jewish households came to the U.S. before 1970.