November 22, 2006
Many aging Shoah survivors are living a new nightmare
(Page 3 - Previous Page)The Claims Conference inspires strong reactions among survivors, who often laud it or lambaste it, said Michael Bazyler, a law professor at Whittier Law School in Orange County and author of "Holocaust Justice: The Battle for Restitution in America's Courts" and co-editor of "Holocaust Restitution: Perspectives on the Litigation and Its Legacy." Bazyler believes that the conference, like other large organizations, "may not be as responsive as it should be to the needs" of those it's designed to serve.
Claims Conference board member Sam Bloch defends the process.
"We're trying to get as much money as possible from all different sources to provide as much as we can for hundreds of thousands of needy survivors," said Bloch, who also serves as senior vice president of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, a New York-based national organization. "It's a complicated operation, but I think we're meeting our historical obligations and doing an extraordinarily good job."
Bella Zucker tells a different story.
In September, the wheelchair-bound, 77-year-old survivor of a Romanian labor camp learned that the Claims Conference had turned down her petition for Article 2 compensation. The reason: Information in her application differed from what was said to have been contained in an application her mother had submitted more than 50 years earlier for a special German pension for Holocaust survivors. The Claims Conference, Zucker said, declined to identify the discrepancies. Bet Tzedek plans to file an appeal.
"I feel like I'm victimized again," said Zucker, who survives on $832 a month in Social Security and disability payments. Just Zucker's monthly rent for her 800-square-foot house is $700.
Zucker lives in the dusty town of Hemet in Riverside County, with two of her four children. Her life has had its share of challenges.
At the beginning of World War II, she said, German soldiers executed her two teenage brothers in the streets during a pogrom. Later, Germans deported her father to Predeal, Romania, to work in the rock mines. After the war, he was a broken man.
In 1939, soldiers took 9-year-old Zucker and her mother, Chana, to a synagogue in the center of their hometown of Jassy, where they and other female prisoners slept on cold floors and survived on scraps of food thrown to them by Nazis.
The Zuckers scrubbed floors, washed windows, peeled potatoes and cleaned and dried clothes for German soldiers. At night, the young girl had to protect her meager food rations, lest another hungry child steal them. Zucker said she can still hear the tear-stained voices of three Hungarian girls repeatedly asking their mother why they had no bread, margarine and potatoes.
In 1940, Germans loaded Zucker, her mother and other Jews onto a train with blackened windows. Zucker said it was so dark she couldn't even see her mother beside her. Nobody expected to survive.
A few hours later, Zucker and her mother arrived at a Romanian labor camp, where they spent the next five years scrubbing, scouring and suffering. At war's end, the 15-year-old Zucker looked like a skeleton.
After the war, Zucker made her way to Israel, where her parents later joined her. An Orthodox Jew and ardent Zionist, she served as a helicopter nurse in the 1948 Israeli War of Independence and suffered four leg wounds. She remained in the Israeli reserves until she immigrated to America, nearly two decades later.
In Israel, she married Chaim Zucker, also a Holocaust survivor, and had four children. Chaim Zucker supported his family as a manual laborer. After the Six-Day War, the Zuckers, tired of Israel's violence and stress, moved to Detroit, where Chaim Zucker's two surviving sisters lived.
He worked for 10 years as a carpenter at a local Jewish Community Center, earning $6.25 an hour with no pension benefits. As with many Holocaust survivors who immigrated to the United States later in life, Chaim Zucker's limited language skills and lack of a college degree made it difficult for him to get higher-paying jobs. Money was always tight, but somehow the family got by.
The Zuckers moved to the Southern California desert in the mid-1980s and later to Orange County after Chaim Zucker's death in 1992. Around that time, Bella Zucker had a falling out with two of her sons, with whom she now maintains only sporadic contact. After a lifetime of hardship and heartache, Zucker's health began to decline.
In the late 1990s, Sara Zucker, her daughter, quit her job as an office manager to care for her sick mother. With their finances in tatters, Sara and Bella Zucker moved to Hemet, one of the few places in the area they could afford. Charles Zucker, Bella Zucker's 47-year-old son, who has just graduated from junior college, also moved in to help care for his mother.
Two years ago, Sara Zucker became her mother's full-time caretaker. Riverside County pays her $300 a week for her services, enough to help defray rent and other expenses. At age 42, Sara Zucker, too, has become a virtual shut-in, spending her days cooking, cleaning, bathing and dressing her mother. Because she can't leave her mother alone for more than one hour at a time, Sara Zucker said, she "can't go on dates, go out with girlfriends for lunch or get my hair done."
Adding to their woes, a doctor recently diagnosed Sara Zucker with failing kidneys. Her condition has stabilized through medication, but she worries that she might need dialysis and no longer be able to care for her arthritic, partially deaf mother.
Sara Zucker's physician suggested that she consider leaving Hemet and relocating to a bigger city, such as Palm Springs, where she could receive better medical care in hospitals with newer technology. Given the desert's relatively large Jewish population, living there would also allow the Zuckers to reconnect with the community and join a synagogue, Sara Zucker said.