Israel's dwindling Holocaust survivors struggle with poverty, bureaucracy

The paintings portray the journey Manya Herman can never forget, the arduous march at gunpoint her family made from their Ukrainian village to a Nazi concentration camp that claimed the life of her grandfather and nearly ended hers at the tender age of 8.

“Anyone who couldn’t walk was shot on the spot by the soldiers,” recalled Herman, now 80 and one of a dwindling number of Holocaust survivors living in Israel.  “I was the only daughter and wasn’t so strong. Finally, I had no strength left, so I sat down.

“Mother urged, ‘You must get up or they will shoot you,’ but I replied, ‘I don’t care,’” she said, describing the watercolor paintings she creates to preserve and honor the tragic memory that has haunted her entire life.

When a Nazi soldier pointed a gun at her head, Herman recalled, her pregnant mother dove to the ground, kissed his feet and begged for him to spare her only daughter. Miraculously, he put his gun away, and Herman’s father picked her up and carried her to the first of a series of camps in Ukraine and Moldova where the family would struggle for survival.


These days, Herman is one of 65 residents at the Warm Home, in Haifa, Israel, where a number had previously struggled to live off a $520-per-month pension from the government, a subsistence-level stipend that critics say is a disgrace for the Jewish state. Those who arrived prior to 1953 get up to three times as much financial support due to a quirk in the law.

“The Holocaust survivors have no time,” Finance Minister Yair Lapid told Israel’s parliament last month, urging increased funding to care for the later arrivals. “They are dying, and we do not have the privilege of stalling the law.”

An average of 30 of Israel’s estimated 193,000 Holocaust survivors die every day. Of those still alive, many still suffer deep psychological trauma as the result of their Holocaust experiences. Their advocates say leaving them to spend their waning days in poverty reflects badly on the nation formed in the years following World War II.

Although Germany has broadly lived up to its commitments to compensate Holocaust survivors, for decades Israel’s ongoing battle to keep its many Arab enemies at bay took precedence over the needs of the many European Jews who survived the Holocaust and made their way to the nation that promised to welcome them. Many of those Jews’ efforts to get help have been stymied by bureaucracy and paperwork. Others believe taking handouts is beneath them.

If the bill to increase aid passes, which could happen as soon as next month, payments to Holocaust survivors could rise to between $635 and $1,560 a month, depending on their circumstances. Other components of the bill would provide more help.

“When we speak of Holocaust survivors, perhaps their lives were saved, but their lives also ended,” said Lapid, himself the son of a Holocaust survivor. “Everything was suddenly canceled without prior notice because the world had gone mad. The Holocaust survivors who live among us are gradually decreasing in number. This law will not be able to fix what has been broken for good, but it at least tries to do so.”

For now, care for Israel’s Holocaust survivors has largely fallen to a number of admirable charitable organizations that are trying to fill the void left by the state. Yad Ezer Lechaver (Helping Hand to a Friend), was started by Shimon Sabagh in 2001 when he realized that the plight of the survivors was not being even remotely addressed by the state.

Sabagh established a home for those who had nowhere to go or needed special care. Amongst the high-profile supporters of Yad Ezer Lechaver is Rafi Eitan, the former top Mossad intelligence operative credited with masterminding the capture of senior Nazi Adolf Eichmann in Argentina in 1960. Eichmann, who was transferred to Israel, remains the only person in the nation’s history to have received a sentence of capital punishment.

Sabagh and his team have opened five ‘Warm Homes’ and provide meals for up to 4,000 survivors a day around Israel, old people who might otherwise go hungry. Only charitable donations and the goodwill of volunteers both from Israel and abroad help the Warm Homes survive. It’s a place for old folks to meet and recall shared experiences, but also to be entertained and get the most out of the last years of their lives. Some male residents -- denied a bar mitzvah ceremony because of the Holocaust --- recently celebrated the rite of passage at the home, albeit 70 years late.

It’s not just Jews, young and old, who lend a helping hand to the survivors. The Christian Embassy for Holocaust Survivors is also a valued supporter of Yad Ezer Lechaver.

“As every day passes, the needs of the remaining Holocaust survivors grow,” Sabagh said. “We receive a little bit here and a little bit there, hoping all the while that these little drops will together fill the bucket.”

In the street outside the Haifa Warm Home is a memorial in the shape of a flame with the number six at its center, representing the 6 million Jews murdered by the Nazis. A gate modeled on the infamous ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ sign at the entrance to Auschwitz separates two mock carriages carrying photo images of the period, but this time, as a mark of defiance, the sign overhead and adjacent to the Israeli flag broadly translates to, “Museum of the Survivors.”

Paul Alster is an Israel-based journalist who can be followed on Twitter @ paul _ alster and at