Counting the Holocaust's defrauded survivors

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The Holocaust has always been marked by numbers. There was the numbering of arms in death camps and the staggering death toll where the words six million became both a body count and a synonym for an unspeakable crime.

After the Holocaust, Germany performed the necessary long division in paying token reparations to survivors. More recently, Swiss banks and European insurance companies have concealed bank account and policy numbers belonging to dead Jews. Only with the Holocaust have dehumanization and death been as much a moral mystery as a tragic game of arithmetic. And the numbers continue, although now largely in reverse.

After 60 years, Holocaust survivors are inching toward extinction. According to Ira Sheskin, director of the Jewish Demography Project at the University of Miami, fewer than 900,000 remain, residing primarily in the United States, Israel and the former Soviet Union. Most are in their 80s and 90s. Unless immediate measures are taken, many of those who survived the Nazi evil will soon die without a proper measure of dignity.

According to Sheskin's data, more than 87,000 American Holocaust survivors - roughly half the American total - qualify as poor, meaning they have annual incomes below $15,000. The United Jewish Communities, the umbrella organization of the American Jewish Federations, determined that 25 percent of the American survivors live at or below the official federal poverty line. (The poverty figure in New York City is even higher.) Many are without sufficient food, shelter, heat, health care, medicine, dentures, eyeglasses, even hearing aids.

Conditions worldwide are similar. It's a sad twist that the teenagers who mastered the art of survival so long ago have been forced, in their old age, to call on their survival instincts once again.

It doesn't have to be this way. Although the various global financial settlements represent only a small fraction of the Jewish property that was plundered during the Holocaust, they still amount to billions of dollars.

Which raises questions: Why aren't the funds being used to care for Holocaust survivors in whose name and for whose benefit these restitution initiatives were undertaken? Why weren't survivors permitted to speak for themselves in the very negotiations that led to the recovery and distribution of their stolen assets?...

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