by David Holzel
The announcement last week that Germany had agreed to an unprecedented additional $1 billion in funding over four years for Holocaust survivors left Jewish Social Service Agency, which provides services to elderly survivors, seeking more answers.
“This is an overall number meant to help survivors all over the world,” said Lori Ulanow, JSSA’s development director. “While it seems like a large number, we don’t know how they’re going to divide it up.”
There are some 500,000 survivors worldwide, 120,000 of whom live in the United States. About 200 survivors live in the Washington area.
The agreement, reached after 5 ½ hours of negotiations in Israel between Germany and the Claims Conference, the body that distributes German reparations payments, is aimed at increasing the number of hours of home care that infirm survivors receive and expanding the number of elderly who qualify for survivor benefits.
Germany pledged some $800 million in new funding for home care from 2014 to 2017. This is in addition to $182 million for 2014 that already has been committed.
In 2015, the amount will rise by 45 percent, to approximately $266 million, and then to $273 million in 2016 and $280 million in 2017. Because the sums are set in euros, the actual amounts may change depending on currency fluctuations.
The $84 million increase in funding between 2014 and 2015 will represent the largest year-over-year increase since the program began with 30 million euros (approximately $36.6 million) in 2004, though a bigger percentage increase took place in 2010, when funding doubled from 55 million euros ($68 million) to 110 million euros ($136 million).
“This came at a time of real budget austerity in Germany,” said Stuart Eizenstat, the lead negotiator for the Claims Conference. “Not only did they not cut [their support], but they added to it.”
Eizenstat, speaking by phone from Prague, said this first-ever negotiations round in Israel helped give the Claims Conference a home court advantage. Before sitting down to business, the hosts took their guests to visit survivors and home-care workers in the city of B’nei Brak and Jerusalem. A tour of the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial with a German-speaking guide followed. “It lasted for 2 1/2 hours,” he said.
Then the two sides sat down in a Yad Vashem classroom to negotiate.
“With this kind of emotional backdrop they’d have to do something extraordinary. And they did,” Eizenstat said.
The Germans also agreed to expand benefits to include survivors who lived in so-called open ghettos. Until now, only those who were interned in closed-off ghettos were eligible for pensions. Beginning on Jan. 1, 2014, pensions will be available also to those forced to live in any of 300 specific open ghettos, such as those in Czernowitz, Romania, where Jews lived under curfew, lost their jobs and were subject to persecution.
The agreement on open ghettos will allow 3,000 additional people to receive monthly pensions, Eizenstat said. “We keep adding categories of people.”
In addition, the Germans agreed to raise the income eligibility for pensions from $16,000 to $25,000, further increasing the number of eligible Jews, he said.
The promise of increased German reparations funding comes as local Jewish agencies that use the funds to provide survivor services are struggling with growing budget deficits. One reason is that survivors are reaching an age when they need critical and more expensive support than in the past.
And the expansion of who is eligible for benefits has increased the number of people that agencies like JSSA serve.
“What we get from the Claims Conference is not enough to handle the sickest of the sick, the neediest of the needy,” Ulanow said. “This is not going to be the full and complete answer to the problem.”
Eizenstat said the new agreement aims to ease the budget woes of service providers. “The principal problem is home care,” he said. Funds from the agreement will be used to increase the number of hours a week home-care workers can spend with survivors to distribute medications and take them to medical appointments and social activities.
Despite austerity in Germany, the reparations enjoy “wall-to-wall support” in the German parliament, he said.
The announcement of new funding comes amid controversy for the Claims Conference over revelations related to bungled investigations in 2001 that failed to detect a broad fraud at the Holocaust restitution organization.
A document obtained by JTA showed that top Claims Conference officials were involved in the botched probes, including then-executive vice president Gideon Taylor and board chairman Julius Berman, who in 2001 served as outside counsel to the Claims Conference.
Claims Conference employee Semen Domnitser, a director of two restitution funds who was at the center of the 2001 inquiries, was found guilty last month in federal court of masterminding the scheme, which ran up more than $57 million in fraudulent claims from 1993 until 2009. The cost of the fraud was borne entirely by Germany.
Eizenstat declined to speak about the controversy.
JTA contributed to this article.