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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Holocaust Survivors Get a Helping Hand




In October 1941, when Ukraine was occupied by Nazi Germany, all eight members of the Gleikh family were shot and buried in a shallow grave in the Jewish ghetto. By some miracle, Sara Gleikh, then 32, survived the gunshots and made it to friendly territory.


On Thursday, the 90-year-old Gleikh, tiny and frail, joined fellow Holocaust survivors in Moscow to collect a money order allowing her to pick up $400 from Sberbank - the first financial help she has received for the suffering she went through more than 50 years ago.


Among her fellow sufferers, this survivor's story is legendary. Taking her place at the head of the line, Gleikh - whose dominating feature is her big, sad eyes - inspired the awe of the crowd: She is the woman whose will to live was so strong that she clawed herself out of the grave.


She was one of dozens of Soviet victims of the Nazi regime gathered at an official ceremony Thursday at the synagogue of the Poklonnaya Gora War Memorial. Organized by a Swiss fund set up to distribute aid to Holocaust survivors, the event was far from joyful. Those who came listened to greetings and commemorative speeches and then quietly joined the queue to receive their envelopes with money orders.


"What is it? Twenty dollars for each lost relative?" sighed a man who would not give his name, but who said that he lost a family of 20 in the Holocaust. He, too, was left for dead, but Russian partisans found him alive and saved him. He was taken to their partisan village where he once again narrowly escaped death when the village was raided by Germans and everyone - save him - was killed.


"I was executed twice - as a Jew and as a Russian. Tell me, how am I to talk about it all?" the man said, on the verge of tears.


Indeed, most of the survivors gathered at Poklonnaya Gora were reluctant to share their horror stories. And while many of them can benefit from the financial boost, no one claimed that this money made up for the loss they suffered during the war.


"No, no, this is not a compensation. It is just a little bit of help that will come in handy," said Rozalia Rybalova, a modestly-dressed, gray-haired woman with two missing front teeth. "My pension is 500 rubles [$20]. So most of the money will go to improve my diet. If there is anything left over, I will buy some new things to wear."


The $400 money order Rybalova received Thursday is the first part of a $1000 aid package to be distributed to over 2,000 surviving holocaust victims throughout Russia.


The financial help is being provided by the Swiss Fund for Needy Victims of the Holocaust, a charitable organization that - in response to widespread criticism of the Swiss collaboration with Nazi Germany during World War II - helps holocaust victims worldwide.


According to Barbara Ekwall-Uebelhart, the fund's secretary-general, the fund operates entirely on donations and has no connection to the controversial issue of so-called sleeping accounts - Swiss bank deposits held by Jews who later died in the holocaust.


A special commission has been set up in Russia to help locate victims and distribute the Swiss funds. According to Yefim Gologorsky, the commission's executive director, 200 holocaust survivors have been identified in Moscow, and the rest of the money will go to people scattered across Russia.


Gologorsky, who spent four years in a Jewish ghetto in Ukraine as a child, said the money was not intended as compensation - merely a means of helping.


One of the few survivors who managed to smile Thursday was Ida Spektr, who was eight-years-old when she landed in a Ukrainian ghetto and was later shipped to a concentration camp.


"I was sick, beaten up and I lost everyone in my family," the round and feisty Spektr said. "I went through all the stages - depression, fear, anger. But I'm happy now. I got married and became a mother. And now I am a granny!"


But given the Soviet government's practice of labeling its citizens held in Nazi concentration camps "enemies of the state," even those who were able to adjust to a reasonably happy postwar life faced an uphill battle. The Kremlin not only refused to recognize these people as holocaust victims, but prevented any survivors from claiming damages from Germany.


After surviving the brutalities of the Nazi ghettos and concentration camps, many Soviet holocaust victims were shipped off to Siberian prisons. The lucky ones avoided a labor camp sentence, but their personal and professional lives were permanently branded by their "enemy" status. In many cases, they had trouble finding jobs and housing.


Since she was a child during the German occupation, Spektr avoided the gulag. Instead, she was shipped off to a state orphanage, but she was still considered an enemy of the people.


"Once I grew up and became a doctor, I asked for a room at the hospital dormitory. I was told that people like me should go and live in Siberia," Spektr said, her smile gone.


It wasn't until 1991 that the Kremlin officially recognized holocaust victims, granting them a small bonus to their pensions. Currently, these survivors earn an additional 87 rubles a month (about $3.50).


However, no one knows exactly how many holocaust survivors there are in Russia. Since revealing their experience might have earned them a ticket to a Siberian gulag, many Soviet victims of Nazi Germany tried to hide it.


More than fifty years after the fact, those survivors who wish to come out of the closet face a bureaucratic battle to prove that they were once victims in order to claim compensation.


Gleikh, for example, who at 90 is the oldest of the victims, says she has applied to the German government for remuneration, but her case has been rejected. Thursday's victims said that the German regulations, which stipulate that only those who spent a minimum of six months in a concentration camp or 18 months in a ghetto are eligible for compensation, eliminate many from seeking aid. Gleikh spent only three months in a Jewish ghetto before she was listed as executed, so she is technically ineligible for compensation.