BY JANE ULMAN
Joe Knobler. Photos by Jane Ulman
Joshua "Joe" Knobler used to go salsa dancing three times a week. He used to play cards with the guys every day. Now, 88, with both his health and finances failing, he sits home all day in his drab one-room apartment in Valley Village watching television.
"Television is my life," he said.
A Holocaust survivor who spent five years in Buchenwald, Knobler was married and divorced twice; both spouses are now deceased, and he is estranged from his children. He leaves his apartment door open all day, but no one stops by to say hello.
Knobler says he doesn't have enough money each month to buy food, get his clothes cleaned or purchase more than a single $5 can of bug spray to fight the cockroaches infesting his apartment.
Knobler used to make a decent living as a tailor. His industrial Singer sewing machine sits in the corner of his one-room apartment, now overcrowded with a queen-size bed, a hospital bed, a dresser and a couch. He explains that the sewing machine is broken; he can't afford a new needle.
He receives $939 in SSI (Supplemental Security Income) each month and pays $639 in rent. Of the $300 remaining, he spends $30 for the telephone, $60 for cable television and another $30 for medication, mostly for pain pills. He's had two back surgeries, one only 10 months ago, and lives with debilitating chronic pain. He has $2.44 in the bank.
"I don't get from nobody," he said.
But that's not exactly true; Knobler has been a Jewish Family Service (JFS) client for the past 10 years, part of the Survivors of the Holocaust Program. He receives eight hours a week in home care services, a monthly $100 Ralphs gift card and $50 a month in taxi vouchers. Additionally, a bag of groceries from SOVA is delivered to his apartment once a month.
Knobler, in fact, receives $2,500 a year in support services, an amount that has been capped for all indigent Holocaust survivors by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, which provides $914,000 to JFS in Los Angeles annually to assist needy survivors.
But Knobler has actually received $5,300 in services already this year, thanks to two funds specifically earmarked for emergencies and other essentials for the estimated 3,000 poverty-stricken Holocaust survivors in Los Angeles.
For Knobler, these additional expenses included ambulance transportation (not reimbursed by Medi-Cal because of an unknown glitch in his citizenship papers filed in 1951, a problem being rectified by JFS) and new glasses.
One fund was created by Roz and Abner Goldstine, longtime JFS board members, who donated $250,000 after reading about the plight of Los Angeles' 3,000 indigent Holocaust survivors in a story last year in The Jewish Journal.
The fund, donated through The Jewish Federation's Premiere Philanthropy program, provides $50,000 a year, with the first year's contribution matched by a grant from the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation.
With the Goldstine fund and with the ongoing $2 million Morgan Aging With Dignity Fund created six years ago by money manager and former Jewish Federation chair Todd Morgan, JFS is able to provide indigent survivors with additional home care hours (usually a weekly maximum of eight) and to cover such emergency expenses as utility bills, medications, transportation and other necessities.
"The need is great," said JFS Associate Executive Director Susie Forer-Dehrey, adding that last year's Jewish Journal article "shed light on how important it is to take care of survivors."
In addition to the Goldstine's gift, Forer-Dehrey noted that The Journal story triggered more than $20,000 in additional donations, much of it in small amounts, including one envelope with two crumbled dollar bills.
There are an estimated 10,000 to 12,000 Holocaust survivors living in Los Angeles, according to Federation spokeswoman Deborah Dragon. Of these, 3,000 are determined to be financially needy, a figure based on a United Jewish Communities Report published December 2003, which found 25 percent of Holocaust victims in the United States living in poverty.
The Claims Conference defines needy as someone with income no more than 200 percent above the federal poverty level. In 2007, for a single person, that amounts to $20,420, with no more than $20,000 savings. For a couple, the amount is $27,380, with no more than $30,000 in savings.
And, perhaps surprisingly, the number of indigent survivors is increasing, more than six decades after the Holocaust.
"The whole population is living longer, and so are Holocaust survivors," said Paula Fern, director of JFS' Holocaust Survivor Program. Of the approximately 600 survivors that JFS is assisting, many are in their 80s and 90s, and five are more than 100 years old.
Fern explained that as they become older, they become frailer. As a result, they need more home care, which includes help with laundry, cleaning, bathing, grocery shopping, doctor visits and errands.
Also, according to Fern, survivors suffer from many more chronic illnesses than most elderly people, including heart disease, diabetes and asthma and breathing diseases. These are debilitating as well as costly, as they necessitate an average of 10 to 15 prescriptions monthly.
For survivors living on fixed incomes, these expenses add up. Plus, rents, as well as the cost of food, transportation and utilities, are increasing.
"There is a huge lack of affordable housing," said Fern, who noted that there is great resistance among Holocaust survivors to enter assisted-living facilities, whose institutional settings, no matter how cheerful and home-like, trigger unpleasant memories.
While JFS helps survivors with their psychosocial needs, Bet Tzedek addresses their legal issues. It is, in fact, the only Jewish legal services agency that offers free assistance with reparations, pensions and other benefits from Germany and other European countries.
Currently, Bet Tzedek has about 750 open files in their Holocaust reparations program.
Holocaust survivor Rosalie Greenfield fills out claims for reparations from the Hungarian government during a summer 2006 clinic run by Bet Tzedek. Photo courtesy of Bet Tzedek.
"Justice moves slowly," said Wendy Marantz Levine, deputy director of litigation. She explained that some cases have been open 10, 12 and even 15 years and are still awaiting responses. And the responses, when they do arrive, are often disappointing.
Last year, Bet Tzedek filed more than $2 million in reparations claims with the Hungarian government on behalf of 350 clients, who submitted a total of 1,300 claims for family members who perished in the Holocaust.
Of those 1,300 claims, which were filed more than a year ago, only two have been approved so far, and the money, about $2,200 for each person, has not yet been received. Additionally, of the claimants who have received responses, Levine said, "Sadly, about 15 percent of those have since passed away."
Still, Levine said that the Hungarian filing was one of the most incredible undertakings Bet Tzedek has ever done, processing all 1,300 applications, each taking about 10 hours, in a three-month period.
Bet Tzedek is gearing up again for another claims marathon. On Sept. 19, a new directive was issued by the German government in which a minimum of 150 Los Angeles-area survivors, possibly as many as 500, could receive symbolic compensation for "voluntary" work in Holocaust-era ghettoes. This would be a one-time payment of 2,000 Euros.
The first of an ongoing series of clinics for eligible survivors was held in late November, staffed by volunteer attorneys from several large Los Angeles law firms. Meanwhile, ongoing prescreening began on Thursday, Nov. 15, and survivors who believe they may qualify are urged to contact Bet Tzedek.
To properly assist Holocaust survivors with claims and to deal with ongoing needs such as medical treatments and increased pension payments, Bet Tzedek has upped its Holocaust program staffing.
While the program was previously administered by one full-time paralegal and one staff assistant, currently attorneys Lisa Hoffman and Volker Schmidt work full time as Holocaust Services Advocates, along with an assistant. Additionally, Levine devotes half her workday to Holocaust issues.
In order to process all the claims, an increasingly time-consuming process, Bet Tzedek relies on hundreds of volunteers, as well as its staff.
"The longer away from the actual events, the more the survivors' memories fade," said Schmidt, who is licensed to practice law in both the United States and Germany. "And with time, it becomes more difficult to track down necessary paperwork."
The money, however, is important to the survivors.
"The amounts of money sound so trivial, such as $2,200 for your lost son," Levine said. "But, unfortunately, for a lot of our clients, they are at the point in their lives where that $2,200 could make a difference in being able to pay bills or not."
Others, who may not need the money, still feel that the German government should pay for what they did.
Rosalie Greenfield, 84, who lives in a Fairfax-area duplex she owns with her husband, has enough money from reparations and Social Security to cover her basic needs. Still, she has lived in pain all her life and believes her monthly pension of $1,400 should be doubled.
"They broke my back in Bergen-Belsen. They should take care of me better," she said.
For some survivors, such as those who cannot meet their monthly mortgage payments or who have lost all their benefits with the death of a spouse, the problems are much greater than what JFS or Bet Tzedek can handle. For others, nothing could ever fill the hole in their lives that the Holocaust created.
But when it comes to those who struggle financially, the situation is less dire if they have a social network.
Henri Opas, 84, a retired cook and caterer (photo above), has monthly rent and other expenses that exceed his Social Security income of just over $800. To supplement, JFS provides eight hours of home care weekly and a $100 Ralphs gift card.
Opas, a widower for 18 years with a daughter on the East Coast, maintains an active social life. A thrice-wounded soldier who escaped from Poland at 16 and fought in the French Free Army as well as the Israel Defense Forces, he spends his days at the Disabled American Veterans Hall in Woodland Hills.
Additionally, Opas has a next-door neighbor, a young mother from El Salvador with two small children, who has befriended him. He also still drives and has cousins in Agoura who help with car expenses and insurance.
"If anybody needs anything more than I do, please give it to him. I'm sufficient. I don't need no more," he said.
In reality, the survivors need more and more services. And it takes money to provide them.
But people are not eager to donate.
"Look, it's easy to raise money to put someone's name on a museum. It's very tough to get money to help these people," said Morgan of the Morgan Aging With Dignity Fund.
To help assess future needs more accurately, The Jewish Federation has commissioned a Jewish Senior Community Assessment, which will include Holocaust survivors, Dragon said.
Led by demographer Bruce Phillips, professor of Jewish communal service at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the study will revise and reinterpret data from the 1997 population study to see how seniors' needs have changed. Results are expected in early 2008.
Additionally, JFS is planning a major outreach in early 2008 to unserved and unaffiliated survivors in the San Fernando Valley. The organization is also targeting survivors from the former Soviet Union living in the San Fernando Valley and in Santa Monica.
Forer-Dehrey said that JFS is committed to serving the Holocaust population as long as necessary. She cites a phone call she received from a survivor in her 80s who lives in West Hollywood.
"For four years in Auschwitz I never had a shower. I think at the end of my life I deserve a shower," the survivor said. "We would like to give that woman enough help so she can have a shower every day," Forer-Dehrey said.