Erzsebet Benedek was only 11, but the three months she endured under Nazi rule in the Budapest Ghetto with nothing to eat but scraps of bread and watery soup “is something you can never forget.”
And when in mid-January the Russians burst in and defeated the Nazis in the Battle of Budapest, the shooting was so intense that Benedek and her family living in a first floor apartment dove under their beds for cover.
“We heard everything,” she recalled. “The fighting continued for the whole night until the early morning. When the Germans finally left there was quiet. Then we heard people reciting ‘Shema Yisroel’ and we knew we were free.”
This week, the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany announced that Benedek and other survivors of the Budapest Ghetto will be eligible for the first time to receive a German monthly pension of about $325 a month.
Benedek, a widow and mother of two who lives alone in a $600-a-month third-floor walkup in Williamsburg, said the extra money would greatly help because she now lives on $775 in Social Security, Food Stamps, and a small German pension she began receiving a year ago.
Germany’s agreement to pay such a $325 pension for an estimated 4,500 survivors age 75 and older who were in a ghetto for at least 3 months came as a result of the latest round of negotiations with the Claims Conference.
Last week, the Claims Conference announced that survivors who worked for the Nazis in ghettos “without force” are eligible for a one-time Ghetto Fund payment of about $2,600, in addition to monthly German pensions. The Ghetto Fund was created in 2007 because of problems in implementing social security payments for these survivors.
Germany in 2002 began paying pensions to survivors who performed “non-forced” labor in ghettos and were paid for their work at the time. In the talks, Germany also withdrew the Dec. 31 deadline to apply for the Ghetto Fund payment.
Previously, Germany would pay pensions to survivors who had lived for at least 18 months in a ghetto, in hiding or living with a false identity. Not only has that figure been reduced to 3 months for those who were in a ghetto and who will be at least 75 as of January 1, but it has been reduced to 12 months for everyone else who had been in a ghetto, in hiding or living with a false identity.
“We have long emphasized to the German government that they cannot quantify the suffering of a Holocaust survivor who lived in the hell of a ghetto, where starvation, disease and deportations were a way of life,” said Julius Berman, chairman of the Claims Conference. “Nor should they refuse to recognize the unimaginable fear of a Jew in Nazi Europe who survived for any period of time in hiding or by living under a false identity, when discovery would have been a death sentence.”
Benedek pointed out that an older brother was arrested by the Nazis, sent to Auschwitz “and never came back” after he was discovered without his identification papers. And an older sister was shot dead on the spot after she was found hiding outside the ghetto in the home of a Catholic family.
Stuart Eizenstat, the Claims Conference’s special negotiator, said further negotiations with the Germans will be held “to ensure that no Holocaust survivor is deprived of the recognition that each deserves.”
The changed criteria for German pensions is expected to immediately affect 8,000 survivors worldwide who were in hiding and using false identity papers for a minimum of 12 months.
Combined with 4,500 others 75 and older who were in a ghetto for at least three months — and another 3,500 who are expected to reach the age of 75 in another three or four years — it will mean Germany will be paying another $650 million in pensions over the next decade. About half of the 120,000 survivors in the U.S. are believed to live in the New York area.
In future negotiations, a working group established a year ago by the Claims Conference and the German government is expected to begin studying additional financial help for child survivors.
“Child survivors — those born in 1928 and later — who were children during the war have an overlay of psychological and physical problems that only manifest themselves later in life,” said Greg Schneider, executive vice president of the Claims Conference. “They have to be acknowledged and dealt with and we are now exploring their impact.”
Benedek said her “left hand still shakes” because of the fear she experienced during the Battle of Budapest.
“I was so afraid during the fighting that my left hand started shaking,” she said. “Over the years it has gotten worse and worse; I now can’t hold anything.”
She added that the whole Nazi occupation beginning on March 19, 1944, transformed her. Instead of continuing to share a room with her younger sister, her family was forced to take two or three other families into their four-room apartment and she then shared a room with five other family members. When in November they were forced to move into the ghetto a dozen blocks away, Benedek said she shared a room with nine others — and a bed with her younger sister and mother.
“It was cold, there was no heat and there was no gas to make hot water,” she recalled. “I never had a doll or a toy there; I grew up from that experience. … I can never forget what happened because I lost a brother and a sister. I can never forget the experience – or the pain.”