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Holocaust survivors’ needs grow, and aid is slow to catch up

BUDAPEST, Hungary >> Agnes Galgoczi, 84, can no longer make it to the toilet on her own. It sits in the kitchen of her apartment in Budapest, just three feet from the bed, where she sings to herself to fight loneliness. Several blocks away, Vera Varga, 78, slides decades-old movies into her videocassette player. The images remind her of the outside world.

They are two of the estimated half-million remaining Holocaust survivors around the world, a group whose needs are growing in complexity and cost as they age, while funding from a variety of sources that have provided for them over the past two decades is starting to dry up.

Both women are widowed and rely on help to shop, cook and clean. Neither can leave her one-room apartment without assistance. Galgoczi could use round-the-clock care, but even if Hungary had adequate nursing homes, neither she nor Varga would make the move. The Nazis forced them out of their homes once before, marching them to the Budapest ghetto, ripping their families apart and sowing seeds of fear and mistrust that have resurfaced as the women enter their final years.

The unique problems that are the legacy of the suffering of their youth, like an intense fear of institutionalization, as well as renewed anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe and a lack of family, often mean that sending nurses and social workers into their homes is the only way to care for them.

But in-home care is costly, and in some places, survivors are left in lonely or unhealthy situations.

“No matter how much you give, their needs are always greater,” said Taly Shaul, director of the Hungarian Jewish Social Support Foundation, which provides for about half of the country’s 10,000 remaining Holocaust survivors.

Dozens of volunteers check on survivors and bring them boxes of food staples. Social workers and nurses clean their homes, administer their medications and, in some cases, become like family.

The growing costs of providing health care and social services to the survivors in Europe, the U.S. and elsewhere have raised the pressure on Germany, in particular, to increase aid.

“This is the final chapter,” said Greg Schneider, executive vice president of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, which distributes funding to 240 organizations that provide for survivors around the world. “Over the next five years, an additional amount is needed if the remaining survivors are to live with dignity.”

In recent decades, the Claims Conference relied on financial support from a variety of sources. Payments came from a $1.25 billion compensation fund from unclaimed Swiss bank accounts held by those murdered, a $5 billion fund to compensate slave laborers and other settlements negotiated in the early 1990s after the fall of Europe’s Communist governments.

But as those funds have been spent, the burden has fallen back on Germany. Over eight months, the Claims Conference pressed German Finance Ministry negotiators with numbers and details to demonstrate the dwindling survivors’ increased level of need.

One-fifth of survivors worldwide live in the U.S., and added pressure came from Congress. Last week, it passed a resolution calling on Germany “to continue to reaffirm its commitment to comprehensively address the unique health and welfare needs of vulnerable Holocaust victims.”

An agreement between the German government and the Claims Conference, reached in July, resulted in an increase in funding for the care of Holocaust survivors in their homes over the next three years. The funding will increase to $390 million in 2018 from $314 million, this year.

“This is pumping a significant additional amount of money into the budget that will have a significant impact in the field,” Schneider said.

For Galgoczi, who relies on caregivers to bring her breakfast and help her wash in the morning, change the oxygen tank so she can breathe, and throughout the day administer the bottles of prescriptions in the basket perched beside her bed, the increased funding could mean extra help at night.

“I completely depend on them for everything,” said Galgoczi, whose darkened apartment holds her bed, a chair and a few of the beloved books that she can no longer read. She refers to her regular nurse as her daughter.

Under the new agreement, existing caps on hours of care an individual survivor can receive will fall away for those who, like Galgoczi, survived a ghetto, a concentration camp or life in hiding under the Nazis.

The recent political shift to the right across much of Eastern Europe has also exacerbated jealousies among neighbors, like the family living next door to Varga, who threw rocks through her window after realizing she was receiving special services because she is Jewish. Under Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Hungary has become more tolerant of anti-Semitism, and Shaul said the foundation had seen an increase of episodes targeting survivors across the country.

Even for survivors who are more financially secure, like Agnes Bartha, 94, who lives in an airy eighth-floor apartment with a balcony, caregivers are like family. After a stroke last year, she needs a walker to move around and a caregiver to cook, clean and help her make sense of the 30 pills she must take daily.

Gone are the days when she could travel to Germany or visit Hungarian schools to tell children her story. Now, she relies on the internet to tell younger generations how in 1944 she was marched from Hungary to the Ravensbrueck concentration camp, how she shocked an SS officer by insisting to him in fluent German that her friend join her as a slave laborer for Daimler-Benz, or how the “biggest present of my life” was a cup of tea handed to her after she escaped in the final days of World War II.

For a woman whose life depended on her perseverance and her ability to get by on her wit and fortitude, it is difficult to admit that she can no longer live independently.

“Because of my past and my physical condition, I need more and more help,” she said, leaning on her walker, decorated with a Mercedes-Benz star recovered from the archives of the Genshagen forced labor camp. “It is not easy when you lose your strength.”

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