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Saturday, July 12, 2014

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Claims Conference scandal costs survivors in more ways than one

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Zlata Blavatnik, former clerk for the Conference of Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, pleaded guilty a little over a month ago to defrauding some $550,000 intended for aging Holocaust survivours, many of whom face profound barriers to accessing direly needed services and supports.

Blavatnik is among 31 people, 11 of whom are employees of the Claims Conference, to be criminally charged in a disturbing conspiracy, now thought to exceed $57 million. Authorities allege that it represents a systematic exploitation of Holocaust reparation funds that went on for well over a decade before finally coming to light in November 2009.

That the oppression of Holocaust survivors should continue at the hands of our own community is heartbreaking in its betrayal. That those whose original torture was met with global silence should hear so little outrage from their children and grandchildren now quite literally keeps me up at night.

Since its founding in 1951, the Claims Conference has engaged in the ongoing negotiation of compensatory justice for survivors of Nazi persecution. It has won key victories in the reclamation of European Jewish property and in support of specialized services designed to meet the increasingly complex needs of Holocaust survivors as they age.

However, the same organization entrusted to represent world Jewry in the sacred task of restitution is now seeing some of its employees implicated in the revictimization of our most resilient, yet fragile, population.

Holocaust survivors represent a particularly vulnerable cohort within a wider, burgeoning geriatric demographic group. But in addition to facing issues of equity and access conventionally associated with aging in western society, Holocaust survivors are also susceptible to the resurgence of emotional difficulties associated with past and ongoing trauma.

Multiple overlapping challenges common among the elderly, such as reduced socialization, cognitive decline, and the need for institutionalization have disproportionately adverse effects on Holocaust survivors, necessitating improved access to alternate forms of care.

The alienation that resulted from surviving the Shoah and then learning to live a normalized existence following liberation has been exacerbated by economic hardship. It’s our moral imperative to respond to the plight of Holocaust survivors today with community support and resources that are sensitive to culture and collective trauma

But our window for action is closing.

Grappling with our identities as Jews, both personally and collectively, seems to be our very birthright.

In our quest to discover what being Jewish really means to ourselves and our communities, I implore us all not to let the resilience of our parents and grandparents, the very manifestation of Jewish survival, be tested yet again, this time by the consequence of our neglect.

Let us not only remember with dignity those who perished in the Holocaust, but engage with dignity those who survived.

Amy Soberano is pursuing a master of social work degree at the University of Toronto.

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