Many aging Shoah survivors are living a new nightmare
Sammy Moscovitz sits alone in his drab one-room Los Angeles apartment watching cable TV and wondering how he ended up like this.
Like the frayed sweatshirt he wears, the 75-year-old Holocaust survivor looks tired and a bit rundown. He owns a bed, a dresser, a television, some clothing and little else. Racked with pain and plagued by various ailments, he points to five bottles of pills and complains that he sometimes rations them because of the high cost.
The Romanian-born Moscovitz has no children, and his wife died years ago. He has a caregiver, Candace Harbin, who is paid by the state to cook, clean and make meals for him 23 hours a week. That helps. Yet when she takes him out for coffee or a meal, Harbin says, Moscovitz sometimes wants to return home after just five minutes because of his pain.
Without medical insurance, Moscovitz lost his house 15 years ago, after a stroke and heart problems sent him to the hospital for an extended stay, which he paid for with his savings. On a recent day, he had $300 to his name, with outstanding debts of $180 and counting.
The phone rings. He debates whether to answer it. Chances are, Moscovitz says, it’s a bill collector. It’s always a bill collector these days. Against his better judgment, he picks up the receiver. A kind voice greets him and asks how he’s doing.
“Fine,” Moscovitz says, before quickly ending the call. “That was some Jewish group,” he says matter-of-factly in his rasp of a voice. “They want to see if I’m dead.”
Moscovitz is one of the tens of thousands of Holocaust survivors living in abject poverty in the United States. These witnesses to the 20th century’s worst atrocity are enduring a second nightmare, often struggling just to feed and clothe themselves.
Their wartime experiences, which included malnutrition and physical and psychological abuse, have made them prone to costly medical and mental problems as they age. Having depleted their savings or worked at low-paying jobs without pensions, they now largely subsist on government Social Security and disability checks, along with some assistance from Jewish organizations, and, if they are lucky, financial compensation from Germany and the other European countries that sent them to concentration camps, conscripted them into forced labor battalions and decimated their families.
An estimated 25 percent of the 122,000 Holocaust survivors in the United States live below the poverty line, according to a report issued in December 2003 by the United Jewish Communities (UJC), the umbrella organization for the nation’s federations. Because the UJC based its findings on data from 2000-2001, many observers believe that the number of survivors has fallen to about 100,000. But with the typical victim approaching 80 and often spending much of his income on high-priced drugs and medical care, the poverty rate may now approach 33 percent.
In Los Angeles, which is home to some of the world’s wealthiest Jews, two Holocaust museums and affluent and heavily Jewish neighborhoods such as Brentwood and Bel Air, an estimated 3,000 of city’s 10,000 to 12,000 Holocaust victims live at or below the poverty line, according to Andrew Cushnir, vice president for planning for The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.
Largely invisible to many in the community, impoverished survivors often exist at subsistence levels as shut-ins in aging apartments or in dilapidated homes they can no longer afford to repair. In many ways, they have become the forgotten people.
Which is not to say that some Jews haven’t stepped up to help after learning about their difficult circumstances. For example, after the publication of an article about Bet Tzedek’s work on behalf of Hungarian survivors, an anonymous donor gave the Jewish nonprofit legal aid society a much-needed gift of $100,000.
“That was a nice surprise,” Bet Tzedek Executive Director Mitchell Kamin said.
But there have been too few nice surprises, experts say.
Area Jewish philanthropists “seem to have a strong desire to give money in remembrance of the Holocaust to a Holocaust museum, but are not as generous in helping the survivors themselves,” said Todd Morgan, former chairman of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and creator of the Morgan Aging With Dignity Fund, which pays for food, medicine and transportation for poor victims, among other needs.
Morgan, a money manager, said he started his $2 million fund five years ago after an indigent victim asked him for $400 for heart medication. Morgan approached several big donors, educated them about the struggles faced by many survivors and asked for contributions. He raised $200,000, much less than he expected. Morgan said he has never again tapped the Jewish community for survivor money.
To be sure, many Holocaust victims have flourished in America and have led productive, full lives. They have become doctors, lawyers, congressman and corporate titans. Still, many have suffered greatly, especially those who immigrated to the United States after 1965, according to the UJC report on Holocaust victims in America.
Survivors who came to the United States more recently, many of them from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, appear to have had a harder time acclimating, in part because of language problems. Whatever the reasons, on the whole, this population has more financial problems, as well as physical and mental health disabilities than survivors who came to America earlier, the study says.
Regardless of when they immigrated, many survivors grapple with indelible scars.
Based on more than 50 years of experience ministering to more than 100 Holocaust victims and their families, social worker Florabel Kinsler, formerly of Jewish Family Service (JFS) Los Angeles, estimates that about half of all victims are still experiencing, or have suffered from, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The mental and physical hell they endured during the war, she said, produced an abundance of corticosteroids in their bodies, which weakened their immune systems and has made them susceptible to lupus, rheumatoid arthritis and Crohn’s Disease, a stomach disorder. Many of those survivors’ children have also inherited a form of PTSD and might suffer from similar afflictions, Kinsler added.
Survivors with PTSD often have nightmares, become easily disturbed by loud noises, have difficulty keeping their emotions in check and tend to be controlling, a quality that often causes heightened friction between them and their offspring.