The Sound of Mutilation

Before the Nazis amputated her arm, Sara Fershko was a concert violinist. Today she's struggling to pay her medical bills

Since 1953 Germany has paid $58 billion to more than 500,000 Holocaust survivors, according to the Times of London, but application procedures often involve more than 30 forms, some written only in German. There are three major reparation agreements, each with different terms. The first, begun in 1952, when the Fershkos were living in Israel, stopped accepting applicants in 1965. Sara and Hayim were ineligible through a fluke of geography. In an exhaustive analysis of the reparations agreements, the Times explained that the Israeli government refused to allow individual reparations for its residents after government officials received death threats and citizens demonstrated violently against taking "German blood money." Instead, Israel accepted German goods and funds to be used in nation-building.

The second reparations agreement (begun in 1980 and still accepting applicants) was known as the Hardship Fund, which offered survivors earning a joint income of less than $21,000 annually a lump-sum payment of $3000. The Fershkos earned too much to qualify as hardship cases. Germany's third restitution agreement, begun in 1993 and scheduled to end in 1999, is known as Article 2. To be eligible, a survivor must have a single annual income of less than $14,400 and be able to prove that she spent six months in a concentration camp or eighteen months in a ghetto or in deep hiding. Sara meets none of those requirements.

To aid the thousands of survivors like her, the Miami-based International Network of Children of Holocaust Survivors is pressuring Germany to set up a health insurance fund to pay the medical costs of survivors. Network president Rositta Kenisberg, who is also the executive vice president of the Holocaust Documentation and Education Center at Florida International University, successfully lobbied for a resolution from the U.S. Congress backing her efforts. It is a cause that exhausts those fighting for it. Kenisberg is the daughter of an Auschwitz survivor and tours the country arguing for the medical fund and encouraging letter-writing campaigns. "I can't answer questions about medical costs coolly; I always end up talking for almost half an hour about torture," she sighs.

Even if Germany does set up a fund to pay health insurance and medical costs, it is unlikely that it would happen soon enough to help Sara, who is 80 years old. While others focus on getting survivors' medical costs from a country an ocean away, Sara must meet her daily needs alone -- cleaning her apartment, combing her hair: "I'm still vain about it. If I have to stay indoors three days to get the style right, that's what I do."

One final option for survivors who can't prove the Nazis caused the physical problems they now suffer in old age is a category of damage called "Nerves." No one knows exactly what this term means, although it can include night terrors, flashbacks, and a sensation that, roughly translated from the German, means "world-lostness." But Sara will not apply under the Nerves provision. "It's a matter of pride. I can't relive that feeling of complete helplessness just to get money from people who don't want to give it," she says. In a confessional and litigious society, this note of dignity is almost quaint.

« Previous Page
My Voice Nation Help
Miami Concert Tickets