Margate, Fla. — At the age of 87, Molly Gruda spends much of her day sitting in a reclining chair in her den and using a wheelchair to get around. Her primary caregiver is her husband, Sam. He’s 96.
Because she is a Holocaust survivor, Gruda is eligible for German government money, administered through the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, to provide her with a home attendant during the day for 25 hours each week. Her husband is not a survivor and thus not entitled to such help.
Debbie Sussman, Gruda’s social worker at the Jewish Family Services of Broward County’s Holocaust Survivors Program, said that if the agency “had more money, it would be nice to have an attendant with her at night. Instead, she’s depending on a 96-year-old.”
In the sometimes cruel calculus of decision making regarding the needs of Holocaust survivors around the world, Molly Gruda may be on the wrong side of the equation. Although Germany has just doubled the amount of money it provides survivors for home care, the Claims Conference has decided to use that increase to help other needy survivors get to Gruda’s level of home care — 25 hours a week.
While that decision, a kind of difficult moral triage, will help thousands of survivors around the world, here in what is arguably ground zero for survivors in need in the U.S., Gruda and others like her are coming up short.
And so Sam Gruda clocks in on the night shift, helping his wife with whatever she needs until morning comes and a home care attendant relieves him.
Jewish Family Services of Broward County is one of four agencies in southern Florida — the others are in Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties — that are funded by the Claims Conference to provide assistance to survivors. The state of Florida provides no assistance to needy seniors, unlike New York State, which has a host of social service programs for them. As a result, survivors here depend heavily, if not exclusively, on home care assistance provided by the Claims Conference.
Of the approximately 13,000 survivors in Florida, the Claims Conference is currently paying for home care for nearly 800 — or 6.2 percent — of them. In New York State, where there are approximately 60,000 survivors, the Claims Conference provided home care to about 2,000 — or 3.3 percent — in 2009, the latest year for which figures are available.
Survivors’ groups in southern Florida have contended for years that the number of hours of home care the Claims Conference provides is inadequate. And despite the added home care money from Germany — it now stands at $145 million for 2010 — Claims Conference officials insist it is only enough to provide individuals with a maximum of 25 hours per week of home care.
David Schaecter of Miami, chairman of the Holocaust Survivors Foundation, an umbrella organization whose 19 constituent groups are said to represent 80 percent of the survivors in the U.S., said he had heard cases of survivors who needed four hours of home care daily and were given only six hours each week because of funding constraints.
“And the situation is getting worse because more and more survivors are asking for care and help,” he said. “It’s a sad state of affairs.”
Sam Dubbin, the foundation’s lawyer, said the inadequate funding comes despite the fact that Germany in the last 18 months more than tripled the amount of money it provides for survivors’ home care.
“It just proves how flawed the system has been,” he said. “Neither the community nor the Claims Conference has ever insisted that Germany provide adequate assistance to give all Holocaust survivors a dignified life in their old age.”
The Holocaust Survivors Foundation and other survivor groups insist the Claims Conference could allocate more of its millions of dollars to providing assistance to needy survivors if it stopped its annual $18 million in funding for Holocaust remembrance, and education and documentation projects.
Although initially the $18 million represented 20 percent of the organization’s discretionary allocation, in recent years that percentage has dropped to 13 percent as the Claims Conference increased its allocations for social services. A 26-member allocations review committee formed last week is expected to review the $18 million figure when it comes up with recommendations for allocation priorities in the future.
If the 25-hour home care limit is increased, Molly Gruda, the disabled survivor here who has spinal stenosis and congestive pulmonary disease, and who keeps an oxygen tank and nebulizer beside her recliner, is one of those who would benefit from the extra help.
“I’ve been sick for 10 years, and my condition has deteriorated in the last three to four years. I’ve had hip surgery twice, and I’m a uterine cancer survivor. My doctors say it’s because of all the years of bad things” — a euphemism for the horrors of the Holocaust.
Born in Czechoslovakia, Gruda survived Auschwitz and another camp, as well as a death march through the forest. Her doctors, Gruda said, believe her osteoporosis stems from her treatment by the Nazis.
“They used to have me carry wood on my back,” she said. “I also have very bad arthritis, and I’m told that came from sleeping on the ground.”
In 1952, the German government began paying survivors a pension. Gruda said she now receives $700 each month, which she uses to help hire additional home care attendants so she can have help seven days a week from 8:30 a.m. until 8:30 p.m.
Sussman said the cost of home care in Broward County averages $16 an hour for a minimum of four hours a day.
“We saved our money to have something for the kids, but now we are using everything we have,” Gruda said. “Once it’s used up, I don’t know what we’ll do.”
Asked how long that would be, she replied: “I don’t want to figure it out. Such figuring will make me sick. And I don’t want to go to a nursing home.”
Julius Berman, chairman of the Claims Conference, said through a spokesman that it would be unrealistic to provide all needy survivors with aides around the clock.
“At some point, families have to provide for care as well, and some people may have to go into institutions,” he said, adding that increased home care money from Germany in the last 18 months has enabled the Claims Conference to increase from 12 to 25 the number of hours per week of home care for the most disabled of survivors.
“We are trying to make sure all who are poor get 25 hours of home care and bring in the survivors who are not yet getting any home care. We are now trying to make 25 hours the standard around the world,” the spokesman quoted Berman as saying. “I’m not sure there is enough money to do that. There are 101 agencies working with survivors, and based on data from Israel we project that another 10 percent of survivors will need home care in 2011.”
Jenni Frumer, associate executive director of the Alpert Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Palm Beach Counties, said her agency is working at any one time with 250 survivors — about 1,000 in a year — and regularly sees new clients.
“We opened 10 new cases in October,” she said last month, adding that she did not yet have the November figure.
Although the Claims Conference puts the number of survivors in Florida at nearly 13,000, Frumer said there are some estimates that put it as high as 18,000.
“We have one of the largest communities of unidentified Holocaust survivors and hidden child survivors,” she explained. “We found that survivors were moving more to Palm Beach County rather than to Broward or Miami-Dade. Every time we did any kind of PR or outreach, our phones did not stop ringing.”
She attributes the steady increase of clients to the fact that as survivors age, their health problems often become more acute. Frumer said she is convinced that the health of survivors is worse than that of seniors who did not experience the Holocaust.
“As children, not only were their lives disrupted but during the most important years of development they were malnourished,” she explained. “They tend to have more dental, gastro and skeletal problems. This is all anecdotal, but if you look at our case load you see it; I don’t need a medical study.”
Although relatively few survivors here now require 25 hours of home care a week, many say that it’s just a matter of time before that will become a necessity.
The case of Sam Weiss, 91, of Deerfield Beach, is one example. The Germans provide him with a pension of $1,000 every three months plus 20 hours of home care a week.
“The attendant accompanies me to the supermarket, does my laundry, brings me to the doctor and to get my medications,” he said. “I can’t drive anymore, and without her I’d have to hire a taxi.”
Weiss, a retired cantor, lives with his wife of 60 years, Bertha, 90, who is not a survivor, having fled Europe in 1939.
“She is not able to do a lot of things in the house,” he said. “Most of the time she sleeps. She has trouble with her kidneys and has a bad heart. So we need help. She can’t cook, so I buy prepared food at the kosher market.”
In Royal Palm Beach, about an hour north of Margate, sisters Agnes Werber, 84, and Anna Stern, 86, live next door to each other in a residential development. Both married in 1948 in a small, joint civil ceremony. Werber is now divorced, and Stern was widowed two years ago.
Born in Czechoslovakia, they have gone to great lengths to stay together. One even climbed a fence in the Nazi concentration camp in which they were being held in order to be in the same barracks with her sister. And both endured a two-day death march from Auschwitz to the notorious Ravensbruck Concentration Camp in northern Germany. Of the more than 130,000 female prisoners brought there between 1939 and 1945, only 40,000 survived.
“On the day of liberation, all of a sudden somebody yelled that the SS were gone,” recalled Stern. “Agnes was very sick.”
Both women receive home care assistance. After Werber had a stroke, the Claims Conference paid for an aide for 25 hours a week; it is now down to 15 hours a week. Stern also has an aide for 15 hours a week.
“Without their help I’d be up the creek, stranded in this house,” Werber said. “It would be almost like being locked in, because I can’t walk much and have nobody to take me.”
Eva Weiss, their social worker from the Alpert JFS, said her agency strives to “help survivors remain in their own environment.” She said the median age of survivors is 84.
“We make sure they have groceries, clean sheets on their bed, that their health care needs are met and that there is someone there to help them take a shower,” she said.
Frumer said she has also received calls for assistance from survivors who live three counties away — about 90 minutes by car.
“When I asked why they live so far away, they say they don’t want to be part of a critical mass,” she said. “They say it makes them uncomfortable to think they could be swept up with a critical mass the same way they were before,” during the Holocaust. “So they chose not to be among other survivors or other Jews — to be under the radar. Then something happens to their health or to them emotionally like bad nightmares and they reach out for help.”