Isreal's treatment through the years of Holocaust survivors was far from being adequate. Justice Dalia Dorner, head of a special inquiry commission, explains in an exclusive interview what the government should do in order to turn that around

Before it’s too late

PUBLISHED IN |  Apr 4, 08

Justice Dorner: I thank you very much, it is important that you came.
Mrs. Batia Pichotka: Your honor, can I ask if this will help us, all the things we are…
Justice Dorner: I don’t know, we will write a report.

(From the testimony of Holocaust survivor Batia Pichotka, March 12, 2008)

About 40 Holocaust survivors die in Israel each day. The youngest among those living here is now 65 years old. If anything can be done to improve the lives of the 250,000 Holocaust survivors living in Israel – half of whom are over the age of 75 – then now is the last minute to do it.

For two months, retired Supreme Court justice Dalia Dorner, head of the commission on the government’s treatment of Holocaust survivors, and fellow commission members Prof. Zvi Eisikovits and Prof. Omer Moav, listened to the testimony of over 50 witnesses. Now they are writing up their report, which Dorner had hoped to release just before Passover. Apparently, however, it will be postponed by a few days, and come out at the end of April.

In her first interview since the commission began its work, Dorner tells Haaretz that in the epilogue to the report she plans to write, she would like to give Holocaust survivors everything – “the milk of birds,” as she puts it. On the other hand, she is well aware of budgetary restrictions. What she fears most is publishing a report that will be impossible to implement, a document with abstract findings that will then lie gathering dust in the state archives.

“The enemy of the good is the very good,” Dorner says. “My experience has taught me that if a state commission of inquiry recommends steps that can be carried out simply and immediately, it happens. When the recommendations involve changes on a systemic level, nothing happens. Our recommendations will not involve chopping off heads; they will be of a budgetary nature, and they will be simple. We are not talking about establishing new national institutions or ‘reconsidering the attitude toward the Arab sector.’ We want to offer simple, succinct recommendations. It will not take another committee to carry out the recommendations of this commission, because then we would not have accomplished anything.”

Germany gives more

Dalia Dorner

Dalia Dorner

“I’ve tried phoning the Knesset, they hang up. One woman told me, ‘The Holocaust happened before the state was established.'”
(From the testimony of Holocaust survivor Monica Avraham, March 13, 2008)

Of some 250,000 survivors living in Israel, about 100,000 receive disability payments for health problems caused during the Holocaust. About half receive a pension from the German government, and the other half from the Israeli government. The sums, however, are different: Two brothers who lived through the Holocaust together may get different amounts of money, the difference between them being that one gets his pension from Germany and the other from Israel.

The reason for this discrepancy is the reparations agreement with Germany, which stated that any survivor who was an Israeli citizen when the agreement was signed, in October 1953, would receive a pension from the Israeli government, while those who immigrated to Israel later would be paid by the German government. In practice, this meant that the numerous immigrants who came to Israel in the early years of statehood have been placed at a disadvantage, because the sum paid by Germany is higher.

“This is a very special group of survivors,” Dorner explains. “The state received reparations from Germany on their behalf in order to absorb them, and it therefore has a legal and moral obligation toward them. In a sense, in the reparations agreement, the state spoke on behalf of the survivors who arrived up until 1953 and, without asking them, it waived their individual right to reparations. It was a major concession, and there are economic repercussions. The state conceded in their name, and this obligated it to them. And in fact, the survivors who had arrived until then were mainly those who had lived under the Nazi occupation, the remnants of the Jewish people, who chose to come to Israel. In those days they also had the option of going to other countries.”

According to figures the commission received from the treasury, pensions paid to survivors in Israel are, roughly, between NIS 1,000 a month (for a 25- percent disability) and NIS 4,000 a month (for 100-percent disability). At present, according to the treasury, Germany pays survivors pensions that are, on average, 11 percent higher. In past years, the gap has been as high as 25 percent, and when the sums are calculated over the long term, significant amounts of money are involved. Among survivors, the discrepancy has been the cause of a strong sense of disgruntlement toward the Jewish state, which is ultimately the one that is discriminating against them.

Dorner herself encountered this matter in the past as a Supreme Court judge, when the High Court of Justice ruled on a 1996 petition in which survivors asked to have their pensions increased so as to match what Germany was paying.

“In that ruling,” Dorner recalls, “we decided that when the state determines the size of the pension a Holocaust survivor is to be paid, it must take into account the German pension, even if it has no duty to match it. This should have been a guiding principle for the government.”

During the commission’s work, however, she came to understand that the state is apparently failing to implement the ruling. Immediately after the court publicized its decision, the state did update the rate of the pensions so that they matched those paid by Germany, but the payments have not been updated again since, and in the last decade a gap has once again emerged. Dorner is now waiting for an official response on this matter from the attorney general – which is one reason why the commission’s report might be delayed – but the eventual solution will apparently involve closing the gap once and for all, with pensions increased by an average of 11 percent.

Second circle

Nazi soldiers in the eastern front (photo: USHMM)

Nazi soldiers in the eastern front (photo: USHMM)

Another legal problem is the status of “second-circle” survivors, those who did not live under the Nazi occupation itself, but rather fled – for example, people who escaped eastward, to the Soviet Union. After many years of not recognizing them as Holocaust survivors, Israeli law now acknowledges the physical and emotional disabilities they suffered as a result of the Holocaust.

“Most of the second-circle survivors are people who came to Israel after the fall of the Iron Curtain,” Dorner says. “They are elderly people who did not work in Israel and have no retirement benefits. Most of them do not have apartments.”

The predicament of this group is to some extent addressed by a new law that went into effect this week, on April 1, stemming from a government initiative from November 2007. The resulting plan, which will cost some NIS 1 billion, includes, among other things, a pension of NIS 1,000 to be paid to the survivors of camps and ghettos who are not receiving any other pensions, and additional benefits such as discounts on municipal real-estate taxes and an exemption from the public broadcasting tax. The law also increases the support given to welfare organizations, from NIS 20 million in 2007 to NIS 100 million in 2008 and NIS 200 million in 2009.

The new law, passed while the commission’s work was in progress, satisfies Dorner, although it has its share of problems.

“The law that now passed is a universal law,” she notes. “That is, it applies to Israel’s poorest stratum, and not specifically to Holocaust survivors. But the commission heard testimony from Prof. Manuel Trachtenberg, head of the National Economics Council in the Prime Minister’s Office, according to which 87 percent of the poorest Israelis aged 80 and above are Holocaust survivors. That is very sad.

“It is an important law, which helped us a great deal and in some ways got there before us. There is a problem with the universal aspect, but if there is a person who came from Morocco and not from Russia, who is in the same situation, I am not sure he should be left out of the destitute group. The law accommodates people whose refugee status has put them in a predicament. The heads of the survivor organizations who negotiated with the government testified before us that if the law is upheld as it is written, they will be satisfied.”

Unaware of their rights

Immigrants arrives in Palestine (photo: Hagana Archives)

Immigrants arrives in Palestine (photo: Hagana Archives)

Mr. Ze’ev Faktor: “We would enter a room, and there would be doctors sitting there looking at a Holocaust survivor suspiciously, as if you were some kind of person who is out to get something, something that he doesn’t deserve. The questions and tests were endless. People who came from concentration camps had to bring documentation of things that couldn’t ever be obtained, because we had arrived without anything; we came with a shirt and a pair of pants, and all our documents had been taken from us and burned.”
(From the testimony of Holocaust survivor Ze’ev Faktor, March 13, 2008)

Many of the complaints heard by the commission involved the conduct of the Finance Ministry’s rehabilitation office, the body authorized by the state to deal with survivors. One by one, witnesses took the stand and told the commission of the endless, tedious forms they had to fill out, of debates concerning the rate [percentage] of disability that took years to resolve, of humiliating appearances before medical panels and of their feeling that the state was doing everything it could to keep its money to itself and deprive them of what they deserved.

“The rehabilitation office should not be a confrontational body, trying as hard as it can to preserve the public treasury,” Dorner says. “It should be a body that serves the survivors. The director of the office, Rafi Pinto, testified before us that this is indeed his intention, but there are claims that in reality this neither was nor is the case. We see efforts and good will, but there is objective evidence that the office’s efforts do not always fare well. We need to reduce the red tape and cancel arrangements that create a burden.”

An important matter in this context, a matter whose budgetary implications are hard to estimate, is the way in which a causal connection is established between a particular illness and the war. Many survivors claimed before the commission that when they try to raise their disability rate, the near-automatic response of doctors acting on behalf of the rehabilitation office is that the illness has nothing to do with having experienced the Holocaust. The solution being worked out might involve making the criteria for establishing causality far less strict.

“There is a clear court ruling on this matter,” Dorner explains. “It is a question that has a medical aspect, but it is ultimately a legal question, and a legal causal connection is not a scientific one. It is much ‘softer,’ because it does not require a scientific certainty. We heard testimony from a doctor working for the rehabilitation office, who said that the nearer manifestation of the illness was to the Holocaust, the more chance there was of establishing a causal connection. Is this really the case? The commission was presented with studies showing that there is a distinct phenomenon of diseases manifesting themselves belatedly, which is only coming to light now. We will certainly establish how doctors should act and how the causal connection should be determined.”

Dorner also learned that many survivors are completely unaware of their rights. “There is an unclear matter of rights that are not exhausted in full,” she says. “An interesting thing: Because of what they went through, survivors don’t always tell one another about their rights. Apparently they are afraid that the money will run out. We must not forget that their life experience has been horrific. We see it as the job of the rehabilitation office, which we think should take more initiative and inform survivors of their rights.

“For example, survivors are eligible for free medication through the health maintenance organizations – even medication that is not included in the state-funded health package – if they need them on account of their disability. That’s the law. They need only to go to the HMO with a document of eligibility from the rehabilitation office. Of course, they have not done so, because they did not know, and the entire matter was just overlooked. Now Mr. Pinto has suggested that the lists of survivors and eligibilities be passed on to the HMOs. This will still require monitoring, because the question is whether the HMO will look at the list, or if the survivor will have to ask again, in which case we haven’t done anything. It is an example we will certainly insist on.”

Amazing rehabilitation

Eichmann during his trial, 1961 (photo: USHMM, courtesy of Israel Government Press Office)

Eichmann during his trial, 1961 (photo: USHMM, courtesy of Israel Government Press Office)

Mr. Nahum Itzkovich: They don’t know anything. There is no database containing even a shred of information about who the people are, where they are, what has happened to them. It’s as though there were no Holocaust survivors in Israel.
(From the testimony of Nahum Itzkovich, director general of the Ministry of Welfare and Social Services, February 10, 2008)

Few people are better qualified than former justice Dorner to form an overview of Israel’s conduct toward its Holocaust survivors. “It’s a historical matter,” she observes, “not a matter of guilt. That’s how things were. Sometimes you look back and say, ‘It should have been done differently.’ The primary focus of Israel’s leaders in its early days was to establish and build the country, and thus also to take in the survivors. When the state was established, there were 600,000 inhabitants here, including children. I was a child then, and I remember that the state then took in a great many immigrants. The economic situation was difficult, and the reparations from Germany were very beneficial to building the state. They were essential. We also must not forget that the collective, and not the individual, was at the forefront in those days.

“In those first years, Holocaust survivors were regarded with suspicion. Why did they survive? How did they survive? Only after the Eichmann trial did people begin to grasp just how strong they had needed to be. Before that, some survivors had hidden the number tattooed on their arms, because they were ashamed. At first it was young people that arrived, and it took time before the illnesses became evident.

“Nevertheless, historians of the Holocaust emphasized to us that we would be doing the survivors an injustice if we portrayed them as nebbishes. This was a group that built the country and established itself here, a group that took part in defending the state in its early days, a group that rehabilitated itself amazingly well. One historian, Prof. Dina Porat, told us: ‘Maybe they wake up screaming at night, but during the day they function. Don’t hurt them.’ There should by no means be the impression of ‘the survivors as the miserable downtrodden.’ No, this is an astonishing group in terms of its ability to survive and build families. We as a society should be ashamed that we are only now addressing the issue.

“Now, 60 years later, Israel is financially secure and is a success story, all in all. Some people were left behind, and to them the state should reach out. It should not have waited until the pressure came from the survivors.”

The big question, of course, is to what extent the state will implement the report’s recommendations. “I expect the government of Israel to accept our recommendations,” says Dorner. “We are aware of the budgetary restrictions, but within limits. There is no point in saying, ‘There’s no money,’ because then we might as well all go home.

“The commission was very balanced. On one side of me sat Prof. Eisikovits, a leading expert in social work, and on my other side was Prof. [Omer] Moav, an economics expert who is active at the Shalem Center, not a man known for advancing welfare-minded economics. That seems excellent to me. I’m very pleased with the makeup of the commission, because it has a proper balance. And that is why we expect that our recommendations, even when they require additional funds, will be upheld. Clearly the state has other needs, but the economics professor has been scrutinizing us, at my request, and making sure that we remain within the boundaries of reasonable recommendations.

“The big picture, as I came to see it in the commission, did not leave me satisfied. If everything had seemed satisfactory to me, I would have written one page: ‘I heard the finance minister, Mr. Rafi Pinto and the doctors, let’s go home.’ That will not be my report.”

It will also probably not be a “very good” solution, but to Dorner, a “good” solution, one that will actually be implemented, is the better option.