By Joan Gralla, Newsday (TNS)
MELVILLE, N.Y. — Seventy years after the liberation of the Nazi death camps, some Jewish leaders say the world’s largest Holocaust compensation agency is in urgent need of sweeping reforms — from new leadership to a sharper focus on aiding a dwindling number of survivors.
The critics say the Manhattan-based Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, entrusted with dispensing billions of dollars in restitution, is failing the men and women it was created to serve, most of whom are who now in their 80s and 90s.
Some survivors have waited years for the modest sums they are owed, in the form of monthly pensions or one-time hardship payments, records show. Others have died before their claims were decided.
Officials with the claims conference, a nonprofit overseen by Jewish groups, say the complaints are exaggerated.
“The Claims Conference is on the side of survivors,” executive director Greg Schneider stressed in an email.
But Pearl Pearson, 82, said she surrendered her independence and moved in with her daughter in Commack after her husband’s death in 2012, in part because their pension applications were still pending at the time. “She took me in,” she said. “It’s very uncomfortable, but that’s what I’m doing.”
As children, the Pearsons separately survived Nazi horrors in their native Bulgaria. He sought a survivor’s pension through the claims conference in 2003, but it wasn’t granted until September 2012 — three months after his death at 84, records show.
New York City attorneys representing Holocaust survivors say they’ve heard scores of similar complaints. An estimated 60,000 survivors live in the tristate area — more than half the U.S. total of 110,000.
A major part of the problem, advocates say, is the slow pace of continuing negotiations with Germany to expand the reach of restitution. Soviet bloc Jews, for example, only became eligible for pensions in 1998 — seven years after the Cold War ended. And many Western European Jews tormented outside Germany couldn’t receive hardship payments until 2012.
Since the claims conference was founded in 1951, it has secured $70 billion in restitution from Germany, Schneider noted. It also funds educational programs and numerous charities for survivors, providing meals, health care, and other support.
Over time, Schneider said, the claims conference has persuaded Germany to extend hardship payments and pensions to many more survivors, including people who hid from the Nazis for shorter periods or were imprisoned in unwalled, provincial ghettos
To date, 426,557 survivors have received $1.2 billion in hardship payments. And 123,570 monthly pensions valued at $4.7 billion have been granted to low-income individuals, according to the claims conference.
Major program expansions in 2012-14 benefited more than 92,000 survivors, Schneider said, adding: “We are doing everything possible to close the gaps.”
The expansions created a “tsunami” of applicants, creating a backlog of pending applications of up to 20 months last summer. He said those delays have since been reduced to six months, but it still can take nearly a year to retrieve records and process a claim.
Delays can be grueling for elderly survivors, who increasingly require medical care and other assistance, advocates say.
Elihu Kover of Manhattan-based Selfhelp Community Services said the nonprofit, which offers in-home health care, housekeeping, claims assistance, and social programs, enrolled 700 more survivors last year, bringing the total to 5,200.
“We get clients coming at age 90 who never needed anything before,” he said.
Pearl Pearson, then Pearla Avcheh, was ten in early 1943 when Nazi-allied Bulgaria began rounding up Jews. More than 11,000 Jews from parts of Bulgaria-controlled Greece and Yugoslavia were deported, bound for the Nazi gas chambers in Treblinka, Poland.
Pearson, her parents Jacob and Sara, and older brother Samuel, were driven from their home in Sofia to provincial ghettos with strict curfews and little chance of earning a living. Her father was sent to labor camps. “They took everything from us” — even shoes and clothes, Pearson recalled.
But the family survived and immigrated to Israel in 1948. It was there that she met her future husband, Joseph Pearson, whom she married at 17.
In 1956 the couple joined relatives in the United States, eventually settling in Woodbury. He became a women’s clothing manufacturer in Manhattan; she was a sewing machine operator.
Though Joseph Pearson spent three months in the Somovit concentration camp in Bulgaria, he wasn’t eligible for a pension until 2010, when Germany reduced the six-month minimum prison-stay requirement.
Pearl Pearson requested a hardship payment in 2005 and received it about four months later, the claims conference said. Currently, survivors receive about $3,500.
Her 2012 request for a pension of about $400 a month was rejected a year later because Germany did not recognize until 2013 the kind of ghettos she endured.
After Newsdayinquired about Pearson’s application, the claims conference approved the pension. The group said it had uncovered a 1958 affidavit detailing her wartime suffering that had been notarized in Brooklyn, said Stephen D. Schwartz, Pearson’s son-in-law.
Sam Dubbin, a Miami lawyer who assisted Pearson, said the complex application process and the unexplained delays and denials were “excruciating” — and all too common.
“The bureaucracy that has been inflicted on survivors has been devastating,” he said.
After she was widowed, Pearson received a one-time award from her husband’s pension of about $3,000.
“I used it to buy the grave for him,” she said.
Of the 68 Holocaust survivors represented by Manhattan attorneys Barbara and Michael Lissner, nearly a third have died before their years-old claims were decided.
In many of their pending cases, the lawyers say they’ve struggled to get answers to the most fundamental questions: Is a client eligible? What supporting documents are needed? When will a decision be made?
“It is appalling that survivors are kept waiting for years and die without knowing that their claims have been properly acknowledged and processed,” said Michael Lissner, whose father survived the Holocaust.
The claims conference denies the charge, saying some of the Lissners’ clients — Austrian Jews — were notified in writing about a year after they applied that they weren’t yet eligible.
The Lissners say neither they nor their clients received the notices and they were kept in the dark in subsequent dealings with the claims conference.
Barbara Lissner, whose mother and father are survivors, said some of the proof demanded is insulting “minutiae.”
“The types of requested information further demonstrate a total lack of concern and respect for survivors, what they have suffered, and perpetuates a further form of victimization,” she said.
Seven years after retired NYPD Officer Herbert Millet applied for a hardship payment, the claims conference required “direct evidence for the escape of his family to the United States in the fear of being persecuted,” records show.
Millet, 87, called another demand to prove he was Jewish “unbelievable,” noting his parents had received restitution years earlier.
Within three days of the Nazi invasion of Austria, the SS entered their apartment building in Vienna, banging on doors, he said, demanding “Who lives here?” He was ten.
His father managed to get them to the United States, but seven close relatives perished in Theresienstadt, in what is now the Czech Republic, and Dachau, Germany.
Millet finally received his hardship payment last year.
Isi Leibler, a leading critic of the claims conference and a former World Jewish Congress official, has called for the group to halt all funding of educational and other programs that do not directly aid survivors.
Leibler said the organization’s leaders, including longtime chairman Julius Berman, should have been ousted after a $57 million internal fraud was uncovered.
“The claims conference needs a dramatic reform, and that is not going to happen while the present people who control the claims conference remain in office,” he said.
A number of critics have argued that restitution negotiations should have concluded decades ago, and too many survivors have died without receiving their due.
“The piecemeal approach has been deadly and inflicted massive suffering on thousands of survivors,” said David Schaecter, 85, of Miami, who survived Auschwitz and Buchenwald.
Schaecter, who lost more than 100 relatives in the Holocaust, is founding president of the Florida-based Holocaust Survivors Foundation-USA, which has pushed for greater control over restitution issues.
Schneider said Germany, not the claims conference, deserves to be asked why it’s taken so long to compensate “people who had suffered so much.”
Germany’s Ministry of Finance, which negotiates with the group, did not respond to requests for comment.
The fraud occurred over 11 years, federal prosecutors charged, and included staffers receiving kickbacks for falsifying documents for people who were not survivors. The conference’s then-director was sentenced in 2013 to eight years in prison for his role in the fraud.
Thirty-one people — including caseworkers and the director of pension and hardship programs — pleaded guilty or were convicted, the federal prosecutors said. Safeguards adopted since the fraud include protecting documents from alterations and randomly assigning supervisors to cases, the group said.
Laura Davis, who directs the New York Legal Assistance Group’s Holocaust programs for low-income residents, said the fraud caused even more delays.
“They became very skittish and worried that people are trying to cheat them, so things are much more prolonged,” she said.
Schneider said the anti-fraud measures are not intended to “needlessly alarm” survivors.
“We don’t have an interest in rejecting people,” he said.
Photo: Claims Conference via Facebook