Jewish Journal


July 2, 2008

Conference tackles Shoah survivors’ needs for next decade


Attending the conference for social workers and program staff working with Jewish victims in North and South America are, from left, Greg Schneider, chief operating officer, Claims Conference, New York City; Victoria Vogel, social worker, Reshet, Chile; Charles Rose, senior program associate, Claims Conference, New York City; and Sandra Steuermann, social worker, Reshet, Chile.

Attending the conference for social workers and program staff working with Jewish victims in North and South America are, from left, Greg Schneider, chief operating officer, Claims Conference, New York City; Victoria Vogel, social worker, Reshet, Chile; Charles Rose, senior program associate, Claims Conference, New York City; and Sandra Steuermann, social worker, Reshet, Chile.

Holocaust survivors are rapidly dying off and will soon disappear, according to perceptions held by the international Jewish community. But a conference in Los Angeles devoted to caring for victims of Nazi persecution in North and South America, which took place from June 22 to 24 demonstrated otherwise.

Not only are survivors alive in large numbers -- estimated at 700,000 worldwide, with about 85,000 in the United States -- but they are projected to be a part of Jewish society for another 10 to 15 years, and even longer for child survivors.

"There are survivors. But they're getting older and sicker, and they need more," said Greg Schneider, chief operating officer of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, which finances most of the social welfare programs for survivors globally.

The Claims Conference sponsored the international seminar, "Caring Across Continents: Working with Jewish Nazi Victims in the Americas," in partnership with The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles. It was held at The Federation's Wilshire Boulevard headquarters, with 120 social workers and program directors attending from the United States, Canada, Mexico, South America and Australia.

The conference focused primarily on providing specialized communal services for needy and vulnerable Jewish victims of Nazi persecution, a field that has come to the forefront only in the last 13 years. Previously some survivors received -- and some continue to receive -- only individual compensation, primarily from the German government.

"There was no recognition of the special needs of the survivors," said Schneider, referring to such services as case management, subsidized home care, emergency-assistance funding and socialization programs like Café Europa, a Holocaust survivors' support group.

That changed in 1994 when the Claims Conference became the legal successor to unclaimed private and communal Jewish properties in former East Germany and began receiving money from the sale of those properties or compensation for formerly Jewish-owned properties that couldn't be returned. A year later, the Claims Conference began partnering with Jewish Family Service and other social service organizations in major cities to use those funds to develop programs for disadvantaged survivors.

Currently the Claims Conference designates $125 million a year for such programs, with up to $18 million of that total set aside for Shoah education.

"There's no fixing what was broken, and everyone here understands that. But you can try to make a difference," Schneider told the participants, conceding that the needs of the survivors far surpass what the Claims Conference is able to provide.

The conference, the first of its kind held on the West Coast, afforded participants the opportunity to network and share expertise and to hear about new strategies and interventions in such areas as bereavement, dementia and socialization. Additionally, they were able to replenish their own resources in a job that can be psychologically depleting and, for those living in small communities, isolating.

For social workers and program directors from South America, who work with small populations of Jewish Nazi victims, networking was clearly helpful.

"We are all together trying to take care of survivors, quality and quantity," said Rosa Ana Silberman Jait, program coordinator of Fundación Tzedaká in Buenos Aires.

Much of the challenge lies in the fact that survivors have very different needs depending on their country of origin, where they spent the war years -- in ghettoes or concentration camps under Nazi domination or in flight to eastern territories of the Soviet Union -- and where they lived after the war.

In a session on working with Jewish Nazi victims from the former Soviet Union, Marina Berkman, director of Jewish Family Service's West Hollywood Comprehensive Service Center, addressed the fact that the Holocaust was never mentioned by Soviet Union officials until Perestroika in 1985.

"People talked about the heroes of World War II but not about the survivors, so there was a shame," she said.

And when Jewish agencies dealt with resettling the Russian émigrés in the 1990s, no one asked about their Holocaust history, said Ruth Paley, client services director at Jewish Family and Children's Service of Minneapolis.

"We played into the conspiracy of silence," she said.

Now, however, there are Russian-speaking social workers serving this population and a greater understanding of their culture and needs. Still, Berkman said, you could devote a whole conference to this huge issue.

In a session on forming innovative partnerships with government agencies, foundations and other programs, participants were solidly committed to doing whatever it takes to assist survivor clients.

"If they don't have money for Shabbos dinner, we'll go out on the street and beg for money," said Rizy Horowitz, senior coordinator for Nachas Health and Family Network in New York City. "We've done it before; we'll do it again."

And while begging sounds extreme, the reality is that funding for these programs is expected to end in five years, when the East German unclaimed properties are all sold or restituted.

Claims Conference COO Schneider, however, is hoping that further funding will be available through an agreement with Poland on restitution of individual or private property. While Poland is the only former Soviet Union block country that has not helped Jews recover stolen private property, Schneider reported that Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk promised an agreement by year's end.

In the closing session, Dr. Michael Berenbaum, director of the Sigi Ziering Institute at Los Angeles' American Jewish University, validated the important responsibilities of social workers in attending to survivors' intense and often critical needs as they reach the last stage in their lives, the only one ending naturally.

Those efforts include offering care and concern, giving them deep respect for both their personal and historical story and finding ways of bridging the loneliness and isolation that causes what Berenbaum called "death before dying."

But those obligations clearly extend beyond the scope of committed and often overstretched social service professionals.

In a statement addressed to the larger Jewish community, Claims Conference COO Schneider said, "We judge our parents' generation that they didn't do enough. But our children will judge us by how we handle the last chapters, by how we help these people live the last years of their lives with some dignity."

"That's our responsibility," he said.

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