Holocaust Survivors Grow Poorer, Sicker as They Age in Israel

When Gizela Burg arrived in Israel after surviving four Nazi concentration camps in World War II, she thought her problems were behind her. But now, at age 83, she can no longer afford to pay her growing medical bills.

Burg is among about 90,000 Holocaust survivors — a third of the total in Israel — who live in poverty, according to official figures. For the childless widow, her inability to fix her TV or afford a taxi meant she was spending Israel's annual Holocaust remembrance day on Tuesday alone and in silence.

Israelis marked the day, beginning at sunset Monday, by closing bars, discos and other places of entertainment. TV and radio stations broadcast the stories of survivors. Air raid sirens sounded at midmorning Tuesday to mark a two-minute period of silence in memory of the 6 million Jews killed in World War II.

Israeli officials warned in speeches that anti-Semitism has not yet been eradicated in the world. Speaking at the opening ceremony Monday evening, President Moshe Katsav called for vigilance.

"I call on the Western world not to stand silently in the face of the nations that are trying to acquire nuclear weapons and preach for the destruction of the state of Israel," Katsav said, without mentioning Iran by name. Iran's president has called for Israel to be wiped off the face of the earth, and Iran is widely believed to be trying to manufacture atomic weapons.

But at home, Israel is having trouble caring for aging Holocaust survivors, as their medical bills grow each year. The country has received close to $80 billion over the years in compensation from Germany and, according to Finance Ministry figures, gives out $326 million to survivors every year.

But many survivors say what they receive is not nearly enough to live on.

An organization called the Holocaust Survivors' Welfare Fund distributes government aid for medical costs, but its budget in recent years has not grown in proportion to the need. Less than 10 percent of the fund's annual $35 million budget comes from the government.

Eighty-five percent of the fund's money comes from a New-York based Claims Conference whose funding come mostly from Germany and Austria.

The Israeli government has increased funding for the organization in recent years, from $435,000 two years ago to $3 million slated for this year. But most of the funds for 2006 have not yet come through.

About 10,000 survivors who are eligible for medical aid are not receiving it, said the chairman of the fund, Zeev Factor, 80, and himself a Holocaust survivor.

"These people are barely surviving, but the crisis begins when a real sickness befalls them," Factor said. "The government of Israel has received money from the German government ... but I think the government didn't use enough for the survivors."

Like many others who survived the war and moved to Israel, Burg took a job with a modest salary, as a doctor's assistant, and had even set some money aside for retirement. Her husband, a mechanic, died of cancer 22 years ago. Her savings ran out after three eye operations.

Now she chooses to pay $1,300 for dental treatment instead of putting meat on her table or fixing her TV. The fund had hoped to pay for the work on her teeth but could not, she said.

"I don't pay for medicine because I have to pay for electricity and for gas and property taxes," Burg said by telephone from her apartment in the Tel Aviv suburb of Holon. "TV was my entire life. I would watch Hungarian channels and remember home."