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Israelis debate care for Holocaust victims

As tens of thousands of elderly victims live at or near poverty levels, the Israeli government faces growing criticism for not doing enough to help its survivors.

Jenya Rozenshtein's identification card introduced her as a survivor of the Mogilev ghetto during the Nazi occupation of the former Soviet Union. Six decades later, she says that she's feeling shut in once again.

A recent fall left Ms. Rozenshtein unable to navigate the steps to her second-floor walk-up in central Tel Aviv by herself. A 72-year-old widow with only $900 in monthly income from Israeli government assistance and war reparations, she says that she sometimes goes hungry because she doesn't have help to get to the store on her own.

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"I am used to not eating," says Rozenshtein, who as a child watched Germans murder her infant sister. "When I was in the camps I went hungry for weeks."

Even though Israel has fashioned its identity as a national vessel of Holocaust heritage, tens of thousands of survivors live at or near the poverty level. When the government offered in July to boost monthly compensation to survivors by only $20, the ensuing outcry highlighted a history of bitterness between Holocaust victims and the state.

The controversy hinges on questions of what is the responsibility of Israel's government for survivors who can't afford the care they need. Advocates say the government must offer special assistance to pay for medical treatment for such diagnosis as cancer, osteoporosis, and psychological stress.

But Tom Segev, the author of "The Seventh Million: The Israelis and the Holocaust," says the controversy is about more than just money. The outrage at the government reflects a deep-seated tension between the worldview of the native Israeli establishment and the old-world survivors.

"The Holocaust has become a very central identity of Israeli identity. But with Holocaust survivors we still have a problem," he says. "The Holocaust is very much on everybody's mind, but the Holocaust survivors are still treated as something of an invalid, a cripple, a big problem."

The Zionists of early 20th century Palestine considered themselves "new Jews" who prided themselves on self-defense while disdaining European ancestors for passivity in the face of anti-Semitism. Holocaust survivors were initially ignored at best, or blamed for their ordeal at worst.

In August, the government said it would revise its earlier offer of $20. Survivors of Nazi-era concentration camps are supposed to receive 1,200 shekels ($290) a month, a decision that survivor advocates say will help about 8,000 survivors.

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However, the new package leaves out about 85,000 survivors – mostly recent immigrants from the former Soviet Union – who avoided the concentration camps and ghettos, but were nonetheless exposed to death, discrimination, and displacement.

"Their house was destroyed, they suffered hunger, and they didn't have any where to come back to. They are Holocaust survivors," says Gal Rotem, a spokeswoman for the Foundation for the Benefit of the Holocaust Survivors, an Israeli nonprofit that provides aid to the survivors. "Even Hitler didn't make a distinction between Jews."

The new compensation package potentially leaves out Avri Michal, a Czech native who hid with neighbors in 1944 at the age of 12 while his parents were sent to concentration camps. Five years later, he arrived in Israel to find indifference to his ordeal.

"They were only thinking in the future in Israel … and not about their past during the war," says a wheelchair-bound Mr. Michal, who was paralyzed on the left side of his body from a stroke. Today, he complains he doesn't have enough money to buy new clothes.

Much of the Michal's bitterness focuses on Israel's 1952 reparation agreement with the government of West Germany. At the time, Israel accepted about $750 million in compensation to help resettle survivors. Some of the funds helped buy infrastructure while the cash helped reduce Israel's foreign debt and stabilize the fledgling country financially. Michal said the government had no business accepting the reparations that belong first and foremost to the survivors.

"They exploited it. They are thieves," says Michal. "The money isn't theirs."

Working in parallel with the Israeli government, the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany has secured over the years $60 billion in payments to help Holocaust survivors. Much of that money goes to survivor pensions (an agreement last week secured an extra $250 million in pension money), but it also goes to hospitals in Israel that treat survivors. But that hasn't prevented survivors in Israel from languishing.

Israel's government is expected to make a final decision on the aid to the remaining 85,000 by the Jewish New Year, which starts next Wednesday.

But Rozenshtein, the survivor in Tel Aviv, says she isn't getting her hopes up. Israel "has always made promises, but since then I've never seen penny."

She complains that she had to fight to get state-funded home care after her back injury. Recently, she's become the target of an eviction proceeding by a longtime landlord and has had to drum up money for legal fees. "I don't want millions, I only want basic things," she said. Israel's government "doesn't have a heart. We are strangers. We built the country, and the country forgot us."

As of 2002, 279,000 Holocaust survivors lived in Israel, about 40 percent of the country's senior citizens, according to the Foundation for the Benefit of Holocaust Survivors. Unlike many other immigrants, Holocaust survivors have not organized politically. That may be the reason that until recently few Israelis were aware of the fact that so many were living in economic and medical distress.

"This is tearing at the core of the Israeli society which is about unifying around the Holocaust survivors," says Roni Lottner, the grandson of Holocaust victims at a recent protest against the compensation program. "It's a disgrace."