Holocaust survivors disgusted by fraud
Arrests targeting false claimants
NEW YORK — Walk along the boardwalk on a late fall day, and Brighton Beach can seem like an old-age home by the sea, where stooped ladies wear rouge like armor and almost everyone lives in the shadow of a difficult past.
Along this Brooklyn outpost’s ocean edge — the heart of much community life here — locals are talking about the betrayal they feel after the arrest of 17 people, mostly Brighton Beach residents, accused of faking stories of Holocaust survival to profit from money meant for survivors of Nazi persecution.
“I cannot imagine that someone would lie like that; it’s a terrible crime,’’ says Klara Rakhlin, 72, her bright makeup stark against her black, coiffed hair as she speaks in Russian. “I lost my family in a concentration camp, and it’s disgusting that people would get compensation although they haven’t suffered.’’
Rakhlin was little more than a toddler in 1941, when she entered the Pechora concentration camp in what is now Ukraine’s Vinnitsa region. By the time she left in 1944, she was school age.
The arrests don’t close the books on the purported scheme. The organization in charge of awarding the money continues to weed through hundreds more case files to see how much further deception may have spread. Federal prosecutors said they have uncovered more than 5,500 fraudulent claims, many of them containing altered birth dates and faked stories of suffering.
Some people — overwhelmingly residents of this neighborhood and elsewhere in Brooklyn — have received letters saying they must either appeal or repay tens of thousands of dollars that the nonprofit group, the Conference on the Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, believes were wrongly awarded.
Already, more than 90 people have told the Claims Conference, as it is commonly known, that they intend to appeal cancellation of their benefits. At least 35 more have returned the money or agreed to repay it on an installment plan.
Still other recipients are getting letters telling them their quarterly payments will be rationed out by the month, while the Claims Conference asks them to again detail their stories of persecution and reevaluates their eligibility. Conference employees will work to find records that confirm each qualifying story, said Greg Schneider, the organization’s executive vice president.
“Ninety-nine percent of the cases are clear cases, and there’s no issue, and we won’t be distracted from the fact that helping survivors is our core mission,’’ Schneider said of the thousands of applications the group receives each year.
Some community leaders worry that requesting more information from some recipients will again turn survivors into victims.
“They are making survivors suffer even more. Why make them prove their status when they’ve gone through so much already?’’ said Pavel Vishnevetsky, director of the Council of Jewish Immigrant Community Organizations.
But Schneider contends that writing a description of their ordeal is not too onerous a task to ask of surivors. And the Nazis, he said, were meticulous record-keepers — often making it possible to find a paper trail. If someone was on a train headed to a concentration camp, it was recorded. Those trapped in ghettos or who disappeared into hiding can be harder to track down — but if nothing else, records involving someone who witnessed their suffering can usually be found, he said.