By Thane Rosenbaum Published: June 17, 2007
The Holocaust has always been marked by numbers. There was the numbering of arms in death camps and the staggering death toll where the words six million became both a body count and a synonym for an unspeakable crime.
After the Holocaust, Germany performed the necessary long division in paying token reparations to survivors. More recently, Swiss banks and European insurance companies have concealed bank account and policy numbers belonging to dead Jews.
Only with the Holocaust have dehumanization and death been as much a moral mystery as a tragic game of arithmetic. And the numbers continue, although now largely in reverse.
After 60 years, Holocaust survivors are inching toward extinction. According to Ira Sheskin, director of the Jewish Demography Project at the University of Miami, fewer than 900,000 remain, residing primarily in the United States, Israel and the former Soviet Union. Most are in their 80s and 90s. Unless immediate measures are taken, many of those who survived the Nazi evil will soon die without a proper measure of dignity.
According to Sheskin's data, more than 87,000 American Holocaust survivors - roughly half the American total - qualify as poor, meaning they have annual incomes below $15,000. The United Jewish Communities, the umbrella organization of the American Jewish Federations, determined that 25 percent of the American survivors live at or below the official federal poverty line. (The poverty figure in New York City is even higher.) Many are without sufficient food, shelter, heat, health care, medicine, dentures, eyeglasses, even hearing aids.
Conditions worldwide are similar. It's a sad twist that the teenagers who mastered the art of survival so long ago have been forced, in their old age, to call on their survival instincts once again.
It doesn't have to be this way. Although the various global financial settlements represent only a small fraction of the Jewish property that was plundered during the Holocaust, they still amount to billions of dollars.
Which raises questions: Why aren't the funds being used to care for Holocaust survivors in whose name and for whose benefit these restitution initiatives were undertaken? Why weren't survivors permitted to speak for themselves in the very negotiations that led to the recovery and distribution of their stolen assets?
Take the Swiss bank settlement, for instance. A federal judge in Brooklyn distributed 75 percent of the looted assets to survivors in the former Soviet Union, leaving only 4 percent for destitute survivors in the United States, even though roughly 20 percent of the world's Holocaust survivors live in America.
Assets that had been stolen by the Swiss were once again diverted, this time by the charitable inclinations of a judge who, ignoring the voices of survivors, severed the connection between the victims of the theft and the proceeds of the recovery.
On the matter of insurance, a federal judge in Manhattan recently approved a settlement in which fewer than 5 percent of the life insurance policies that had been sold to Jews would be restituted, allowing the Italian insurer, Generali, to escape with more than $2 billion in unjust enrichment. By not requiring Generali to disclose the names of policyholders, the settlement amounts to a cover-up. Tens of thousands of Holocaust survivors are being kept from the truth and will likely be foreclosed from bringing individual claims against the corporation that defrauded them.
The Jewish Claims Conference, an organization established in the 1950s to recover and distribute Jewish property, has assets under its care estimated at $1.3 billion to $3 billion, which includes a vast inventory of cash, real estate and artwork. Despite the urgency of human suffering, the conference insists that it cannot respond to the unmet needs of Holocaust survivors.
Meanwhile, it spent about $32 million last year on programs dedicated to "research, documentation and education." Some of those millions went to a program that paid $700,000 to a "consultant" - a friend of the organization's president - who, in an interview with The Jewish Week, couldn't recall what he had been asked to consult on. While the conference supports many worthy projects, it is controlled not by survivors but by surrogates, and operates with limited oversight and financial accountability.
The Holocaust, so large an atrocity, has a way of overshadowing everything, including its survivors. In focusing on the past in order to prevent history from repeating itself, we have forgotten those who are the direct casualties of this crime. Amid all the Holocaust hoopla the survivors have become secondary.
This neglect is widespread. Even the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum has regarded itself as primarily a home for historians and a monument to history, but not as an institution that places survivors first. Yet without their anguished presence the museum would not exist.
One demonstration of its inattentiveness involves the imminent transfer to the museum of electronic copies of Germany's Bad Arolsen archives, which hold 50 million documents pertaining to the fate of more than 17.5 million victims. Unfortunately, the museum has failed to commit to making the archives accessible on the Internet so that they can be accessed as easily by Holocaust survivors as by visiting scholars.
So what can be done to honor those who survived but who seem to have been forgotten?
First, all traceable assets held by the claims conference and the negotiated settlements with Swiss bankers and European insurance companies must be returned to their owners, with the remainder used for survivor needs.
Second, Congress should pass the proposed Holocaust Insurance Accountability bill, which would require insurers to publish the names of policyholders and allow survivors to resolve claims on fair and truthful terms.
Third, all Holocaust documentation, like the Bad Arolsen archives and the recently disclosed Austrian war records, must be made readily accessible. Survivors and their families must have easy access so family histories can be recovered and property claims verified. These archives cannot be just the province of scholars.
Finally, if both the World Jewish Congress and the claims conference fail to achieve transparency in their operations, then Congress or law enforcement should publicly account for the funds that have been controlled by institutions that survivors never elected and did not authorize.
Surviving the Holocaust, which was against all odds, is still a numbers game. The percentages are always against the survivors. Nearly murdered, shamefully defrauded and with the clock ticking, they wait for justice, accountability and, most of all, respect.
Thane Rosenbaum, a professor of law at Fordham, is the author of "The Myth of Moral Justice."
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