Emergency funds for survivors run out due to increased demand

Gregory Schneider, left, and Sydney Zoltak

MONTREAL — The flood of new applications from North African Jews for Holocaust survivor benefits is straining the funds that a Montreal social service agency has available to allocate.

The Cummings Jewish Centre for Seniors (CJCS), which is responsible for deciding who receives money from an emergency assistance fund for low-income survivors, says it has run out of money for the current year and is appealing to its source, the New York-based Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany (the Claims Conference), for more.

At a time when it was thought attrition would reduce the demand for Holocaust compensation, it is actually increasing in Montreal due to both the expanded eligibility criteria and the increasing needs of survivors as they age.

Some of the traditional recipients of such support are upset, not only because they can’t get any more assistance for the rest of 2014, but also that the amounts they were able to receive have been significantly cut.

In 2011, the Claims Conference secured $26 million from Germany for Jews who lived under the French collaborationist regime in North Africa during World War II in recognition that their “freedom of movement was restricted.”

The payouts affected are not reparations – a regular payment to which a survivor is entitled – but part of a larger hardship fund.

Emergency assistance consists of grants for  one-time or short-term urgent situations, such as inability to pay for rent or food, or, as is increasingly the case, extraordinary health-related costs, such as dental work, eyeglasses or medical tests or equipment. Applicants must meet very specific criteria regarding income and assets, which are set by the Claims Conference.

The definition of who is a survivor has been recently broadened in other ways, notably to include Jews in Russia who were not previously eligible because they were not under Nazi occupation, as well as some Romanian and Bulgarian Jews.

But the CJCS is especially affected by the inclusion of North Africans, because they represent such a large proportion of the Montreal Jewish community. Federation CJA estimates that almost one-quarter of the city’s more than 90,000 Jews are Sephardi.

The disgruntled survivors have written to Claims Conference executive vice-president Gregory Schneider, appealing to him to intervene. A copy of that letter, which bears about 125 signatures, was sent to The CJN.

“Our suffering is considerable and it is quite a shame for us to feel the way we do,” they write. “Some people just do not know how the suffering from the Holocaust impacts lives and especially at our advanced ages – mentally, physically, socially and, for some, financially.” 

They say they’re offended by the way they were abruptly told there is no more money available at this time and suggest Schneider consider an audit of how the fund is managed, “because we understand that Germany has always made good on its commitments to us.” 

Hillary Kessler, director of communications at the Claims Conference, said the total budget it allocates to the CJCS has increased by more than 200 per cent in the past four years to meet the surge in demand, to the current $2.7 million for all benefits and services to survivors. 

This includes $375,000 to the emergency assistance fund for distribution in 2014. Not all of that money comes from Germany. In fact less than half does, with most of the rest donated by the U.S.-based Weinberg Family Foundation. 

Home care services is another major expense the total allocation covers.

Years ago, the maximum emergency payout was $2,500 per applicant. Today, it’s down to $500.

The CJCS is not only responsible for disbursing this money in Montreal, but in the rest of Canada – outside Toronto, Vancouver and Ottawa – as well.

In Toronto, Jewish Family & Child, which administers the emergency assistance fund there, as well as provides an array of services to survivors, has also seen a spike in demand recently, said executive director Richard Cummings.

“Anecdotally, we are seeing an increasing number [of applicants], mainly from the Russian community,” he said. The agency is, however, coping.

Similarly, Circle of Care, which provides Claims Conference-funded home care and other support services to elderly survivors, has seen an increase in demand, said Arnold Foss, who is responsible for survivor services. Many of these new applicants are also from Russia, often people who survived the sieges of Leningrad or Moscow, he said.

Other changes in eligibility criteria, such as the raising of the income threshold have also contributed to more demand, he said.

Foss’ department currently has a wait list of about 300 people, however, not all their applications have been finalized at this point, generally because they have not provided the needed documentation, he said.

The international emergency assistance fund was initially set up by the Claims Conference in 1995, with the recovery of unclaimed Jewish property in the former East Germany.

“We feel terrible,” said Benita Goldin, CJCS co-ordinator of community relations, who is responsible for all survivor benefits. “We were overwhelmed this year… Although our allocation [from the Claims Conference] was increased somewhat, it is not nearly enough to cover everybody… The fund ran out for the current year much earlier than we expected. We have been asking the Claims Conference for more, and they have given us some additional funds.”

She authorizes grants of $350 or less, while requests for more than that are reviewed by an advisory committee made up of survivors.

“We were informed by CJCS in May that the emergency assistance funding was nearly depleted for the year,” said Kessler. “In June we allocated an additional $90,000.”

Kessler warned that such funding is drawing to a close. Revenue from the monies realized from the restitution to the Claims Conference of unclaimed Jewish property in the former East Germany will be exhausted by 2018, she said, although not all funding from that source will necessarily end at that time.

She said the Claims Conference wants to work with the Montreal community and other agencies elsewhere that administer its funds to develop other resources to assist Nazi victims.

“The Claims Conference has said from the beginning that it does not have the resources to meet every need,” she said.

As for the current shortfall, Kessler said the Claims Conference is looking into the situation, but could not say if any more money will be forthcoming this year.

Montrealer Sidney Zoltak, co-president of Canadian Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Descendants, which is affiliated with the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, said he believes the current crisis can be resolved and said he would personally intervene with Schneider.

Zoltak, a Polish-born survivor, is a Claims Conference board member and sits on the CJCS survivors advisory committee.

Zoltak believes no one is at fault, and asks the survivors to be patient.

“I can assure you that somehow Cummings, with us, will rectify the situation and get more money,” said Zoltak, who thinks it may be in a matter of weeks.

But he cautions survivors cannot expect that 100 per cent of their requests ever will be met.

“Anybody who is really in need will be helped, but if, for example, you need dentures, you can wait a month or six weeks,” Zoltak said.

“I’m concerned about the welfare of survivors and will not stand idly by when things are due for them, but at the same time, don’t kill the messenger.”