Hungary Is Struggling To Meet The Needs of Holocaust Survivors

Each weekday, Laszlo Zobel, 98, a retired textile maker fond of colourful jokes, leaves his fin-de-siècle apartment in the company of a nurse, and visits a specialist to treat the chronic osteosclerosis he suffers from.

“If it wasn’t for these treatments and nurse, I don’t know what I’d do,” said Mr Zobel, reclining on a sofa in his home. “I wouldn’t be able to walk or leave my flat.
“You can have a nice apartment, but if you can’t leave it, it is a prison.”

If there is anything that Mr Zobel knows intimately, it is prison. In 1941, he was pressed into forced labour in the Ukraine, where he slaved, starved and, ultimately, survived.

Today, he is one of approximately 6,500 Holocaust survivors in Hungary, many of whom are receiving support through a partnership between the Hungarian Jewish Social Support Foundation (JDC-HJSSF) and the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany. The JDC-HJSSF is both founded and supported by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

“Our focus is supplying the neediest of Holocaust survivors with assistance,” said Taly Shaul, director of the JDC-HJSSF in Budapest.

In Hungary, the Claims Conference funds care programmes run by the JDC-HJSSF, which include the kind of in-home assistance that Mr Zobel receives, food deliveries, and even social activities.
Although the Claims Conference funds social services for 150,000 Holocaust survivors worldwide, its work in Eastern Europe is especially necessary, where state support of the elderly can be limited.

For example, Hungary has fewer retirement homes than many Western countries, and only three or four cater to elderly Jews.

One of them is the Budapest Jewish Community Home in the city’s Ujpest district, which houses 75 Holocaust survivors and family members. Funded primarily by the Hungarian state, this residence – which stands beside a synagogue and originally housed Jewish refugees after the war – is struggling after the government made changes to social services policy.

“Only elderly people who require more than four hours of daily nursing care can live here now,” said facility deputy director Erzsebet Budavari, who explained that up to 20 authorities oversee the home, and if a resident is found not to require this hourly quota of care, the residence can be fined.

“The government thinks these people should stay at home as long as possible,” said Ms Budavari, “and family should solve the problems.”

But the sad truth is that most survivors lost their families in the war, and suffer from isolation on top of everything else. “My husband died,” said resident Agnes Bauer, 83, on her decision to live in the Ujpest home, “and I didn’t want to be alone.”

Greg Schneider, Executive Vice President of the Claims Conference, said that traditional care was not always appropriate for survivors.

“For many, you have all these geriatric issues,” said Mr Schneider. “But Holocaust survivors have an overlay of all kinds of additional challenges.”

The most obvious issue is financial, he said. “For this entire population there is no inherited wealth. Every single thing that belonged to their family was stolen.

“There is also deteriorating health,” Mr Schneider said, adding that the starvation that every survivor endured – whether in a camp, ghetto or in hiding – created a calcium deficiency that “results in elevated risks of osteosclerosis when you are 85”.

And there are the psychological scars. “When you get older it is common that you regress, and you relive early stuff,” said Mr Schneider.

Holocaust survivors regress into the darkest moments of the 20th century.”

According to Ms Shaul of the JDC-HJSSF, this trauma must be taken into account when offering assistance.

“How do you care for survivors?” asked Ms Shaul rhetorically. “I think the most important thing is for them to stay in their homes, because their homes symbolise their lives, family, and legacy. This is where they grew up and were raised by their families. And this is why a big part of the services we provide enable them to live in their own homes.”

In 2015, the Claims Conference allocated over $9m (£7.3m) to help Hungarian survivors remain in their houses and flats.

Each year, the total number of Holocaust survivors is decreasing; the youngest survivors are now over 70 years of age.

At the same time, the cost of caring for the living is rising dramatically.

“There is no question that the need is greater than ever,” said Mr Schneider, adding that the Claims Conference budget would rise from 281.75m in 2016 to 350m euros in 2018 to meet this growing need.

“I understand that it is counter-intuitive. You think: if there are fewer people to support, the costs should be lower. But as survivors age, their needs increase.”

The needs of the Holocaust generation are not just growing – they are clearly nuanced and unique. And aid workers like Mr Schneider say that future generations will judge us on how we treat these people.

“We only have a few years to do this,” said Mr Schneider. “I think all the time that my children are going to ask me: ‘How did you treat survivors in their final years?'”

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply