In Ukraine, new funds give survivors a bit of hope

odessa, ukraine  |  In her dilapidated apartment, Larisa Rakovskaya examines a stack of unpaid heating bills. Sick and alone, the 86-year-old Holocaust survivor and widow is preparing for another encounter with the cold, her “worst and only fear.”

Rakovskaya says her hope of staying warm this winter lies with a one-time payment of approximately $3,200 that she may receive from Germany via the Claims Conference following Berlin’s recent decision to include victims of Nazi persecution in the former Soviet Union as beneficiaries of the so-called Hardship Fund. Some 80,000 survivors across the former Soviet Union are expected to qualify for the payouts, half of them in Ukraine, where a crumbling welfare system leaves the old and disabled in penury.

Rakovskaya says that once she uses the Hardship Fund payment to pay off the few hundred dollars she owes for utilities, she wants to visit Israel for the first time.

“I don’t want to renovate, and I don’t need a boiler. My last wish is to see Jerusalem,” she said.

photo/cnaan liphshiz Larisa Rakovskaya in her Odessa apartment

Her social worker from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee asks Rakovskaya to “be realistic” and use the money for day-to-day living.

The Claims Conference, which negotiated the expansion of the Hardship Fund with Germany, says the money will have “an enormous impact.” The application process starts in November, and eligible claimants are expected to be approved as quickly as eight weeks afterward, according to Claims Conference spokeswoman Hillary Kessler-Godin. Applications will be processed throughout most of 2013.

JDC, which funds Jewish welfare operations in the former Soviet Union through the institution known as Hesed, called the new money a “welcome addition” but cautioned that survivors, as well as other Jews in the region, still need ongoing assistance.

Rakovskaya lives on a $111 monthly government pension in a one-bedroom apartment with her small dog, Chunya. Old newspapers absorb humidity from the broken floor; the brown walls are crumbling. With no hot water, she heats water over an electric stove and then washes over a rusty sink. She has managed to get food and medicine and keep her home heated thanks to support from her local Hesed.

Established in the 1990s, Hesed provides relief, medical services and food to approximately 170,000 Jews in former Soviet countries. JDC’s 2012 budget for welfare and social services in the former Soviet Union comes to $113.5 million. Some of the money comes from the Claims Conference. In 2011, those funds reached approximately $75 million.

Approximately 7,000 Hesed clients live in Odessa, a city with a Jewish population estimated at 40,000. Ukraine has some 360,000 to 400,000 Jews, according to the European Jewish Congress.

Greg Schneider, the executive vice president of the Claims Conference, said the new Hardship Fund payment is the fruit of 20 years of labor.

During the Cold War, Germany “understandably” resisted compensating victims living behind the Iron Curtain for fear that Soviet regimes would confiscate the money, Schneider said.

“For a Westerner,” he said, the $3,200 is “the equivalent of receiving a year’s worth of pension.”

Asher Ostrin, the JDC’s director of activities in the former Soviet Union, calls the fund “a welcome addition,” but also says, “It will not elevate anyone from extreme poverty to middle-class comfort.”

Ostrin says many poor Jews resist immigrating to Israel for fear of the unfamiliar and a deep attachment to their apartments — often the only property they managed to keep during and after communism.

The new funds secured by the Claims Conference, “will not change anything on the fundamental level,” he said, “but they are important for the recipients and as a form of belated justice.”