Holocaust survivors need help right now

Miami Herald Editorial Board

Holocaust survivor Tibor Hollo, 90, shakes hands with Harry Smith, a founder of the Holocaust Memorial, during Holocaust Remembrance Day in Miami Beach.
Holocaust survivor Tibor Hollo, 90, shakes hands with Harry Smith, a founder of the Holocaust Memorial, during Holocaust Remembrance Day in Miami Beach. FOR THE MIAMI HERALD

In a rare and very welcome show of unanimity, the U.S. House of Representatives last week approved a resolution calling on Germany to provide more financial resources to Holocaust survivors. The measure passed by a vote of 363-0.

Now it’s up to the Senate to do the same. The bipartisan bill was jointly sponsored by two members from South Florida, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami, and Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Boca Raton. In the upper chamber, one of the two co-sponsors is Florida Democrat Sen. Bill Nelson, along with Maine Republican Susan Collins.

The prominent role played by these Florida legislators reflects the fact that this part of the state is home to one of the largest communities of Holocaust survivors in the United States, which itself is home to an estimated 140,000 victims of the Nazi effort to exterminate Jews.

Their numbers are dwindling, for obvious reasons. The youngest are in their 80s, and many others are over 100 years old. As they age, they face increasing special-care needs linked to the persecution and horror they survived in places like Auschwitz and the isolation resulting from the loss of family members in the Nazi death camps.

Pressure from the survivors and their supporters around the world led to ongoing talks by the German Finance Ministry and the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany — which cares for tens of thousands of survivors in dozens of countries — to ensure that the most vulnerable and needy of the victims get the care they need in their final years.

The German government has been financing compensation and reparations programs around the world for more than half a century. But even so, the healthcare needs of existing Holocaust victims are not being serviced because up to 25 percent of them live in poverty, and aid must be rationed among all the survivors. Their needs are greater than the available funds. “What is being done by the Germans is incredibly generous, but survivors’ needs are not being met,” Rep. Deutch has said.

What the German government must do is replace the program of weekly caps on hours for home care and a system that rations funding with a plan that, instead, services all healthcare needs of this diminishing population. That includes home healthcare, programs for mental healthcare, dental care and so forth. As Rep. Ros-Lehtinen wrote recently, Germany must “reaffirm its financial commitments to survivors to ensure they are able to live out their remaining years in dignity, comfort and security.”

The best way to do that is to set up a rational and transparent funding mechanism that avoids what Rep. Ros-Lehtinen called the “time-consuming bureaucracy” that afflicts existing programs.

The Senate should endorse the House-passed resolution without delay. But Congress shouldn’t stop there because Holocaust survivors are victims of lingering injustice in other ways. The most important issue involves restoring the rights of survivors to win compensation from insurance companies that refuse to honor some pre-Holocaust policies.

It’s only fair for Congress to let survivors and their heirs sue the insurance companies, which current law forbids. Lawmakers were right to pressure the German government to do right by the Holocaust survivors. Now they should exert equal pressure on insurance firms that, as Rep. Ros-Lehtinen says, are engaged in “a shameless ploy to run out the clock.”