An estimated one-third of the 100,000 survivors in the country live at or below the poverty line, according to The Blue Card, a nonprofit organization that provides financial assistance to survivors of the genocide that killed more than 6 million Jews in Europe.
Compared to the 10% of Americans age 65 and older who live in poverty, as reported by the US Department of Health and Human Services, Holocaust survivors are a much greater risk group.
Of the 50,000 survivors residing in the New York Metropolitan area, 52% are considered “poor,” living below 150% of federal poverty guidelines, or an individual annual income of less than $18,000, according to Selfhelp, an organization that has assisted victims of Nazi crimes since 1936.
“It’s a shocking statistic,” said Hanan Simhon, vice president of Holocaust Survivor Services at Selfhelp.
Survivors from the former Soviet Union have it particularly bad, he said, with 80% of them living in poverty. “They came here much later in their life at the fall of the Soviet Union, with no Social Security, pension or any type of supporting income for retirement.”
As they age, this last generation of survivors incurs increasingly complex financial needs.
The poverty is due to a number of factors, said Masha Pearl, executive director of The Blue Card.
“They tend to be very isolated, losing their families during the war and then either did not or could not have children,” said Pearl. “Many started working in menial jobs because they did not have the language skills. Today they are in their 80s and 90s and it is beyond difficult to make ends meet.”
Sami Steigmann spent his early childhood years in a Nazi labor camp. Years later, he was told by his father that he was subjected to medical experiments, which still cause him pain today at 77. “I’m a proud person, I never wanted to reach out for help,” he said.
But after years of struggle and “getting involved with the wrong people,” he found himself homeless. “I’m not a street person, I wanted to commit suicide,” he said. It was only then when he agreed to be recognized as a survivor and mentally disabled, receive reparations from Germany and move into subsidized housing.
“Many are embarrassed to be in this situation, feeling as if they’ve failed twice — not being able to save their family and now having to turn for help,” said Pearl. “People with food stamps in the grocery store are trembling and afraid that someone will see them. Many of them wait to come forward because they are too ashamed.”
When he couldn’t afford a hearing aid, Steigmann once again reached out for assistance from Jewish organizations.
Today, Steigmann lives in a tiny studio apartment in New York. The building was recently bought and he will soon need to vacate the place he’s called home for the last 20 years. Steigmann, who volunteers as a tutor teaching students about the Holocaust, fears he will no longer be able to participate in such activities, which he believes have been lifesaving.
The Blue Card, which serves 2,500 Holocaust survivors nationwide, experienced a 20% increase in requests for assistance in 2016. Their latest survey found the greatest needs for financial assistance were for home care, food and utilities. Of those they service, 67% cannot leave their homes without assistance and 78% have difficulty performing daily activities such as dressing, washing and cooking, according to the survey.
The majority of The Blue Card’s dependents — 77% — are women.
Rosenberg, who is well past retirement age, said she still works to help herself, both mentally and economically. “It helps me cope, but I also need to work to supplement my income,” she said.
She has been the sole provider for her household since her husband left 25 years ago, and today depends on the financial aid and dental services she receives from The Blue Card.
Rosenberg lost an arm in a German munitions factory, but otherwise is in relatively good shape, and said she is fortunate to be living independently. She is concerned, however, she won’t be able to afford home care when the time comes, and that a proper nursing home for survivors does not exist.
Simhon of Selfhelp said they have 1,400 residents in 10 affordable housing sites throughout the New York area and a waiting list of 4,000. Some 250 survivors are on a waiting list in Brooklyn for a social worker to be assigned to them and three to four new clients register each day.
“These are limited resources for a limited time — there won’t be new Holocaust survivors taking their place,” Simhon said. “The cost to provide services is going up and the needs are more intense than ever.”