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JERUSALEM Many Israelis were shocked and angered Thursday to learn thattheir government refuses to release German reparation funds to improve theliving conditions of Holocaust survivors committed to mental hospitals.
Avner Shalev, chairman of Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust memorial andmuseum, said he was "simply astounded by the insensitivity and themalice" of the officials involved.
Avraham Hirschson, head of a parliamentary committee dealing with reparationsto Holocaust survivors, appealed to lawmakers to return from their summerrecess for an emergency debate on the "disgraceful exploitation ofHolocaust survivors' funds."
The policy came to light Wednesday when doctors at Abarbanel Hospitalnear Tel Aviv said government trustees had refused to approve spending themoney on televisions, air conditioners, holiday parties and other quality-of-lifeimprovements.
The hospital was denied the funds on the grounds that other patientsin the room would also benefit, not just the patient whose money was beingused, said Avner Elitsur, director of the psychiatric ward.
About 900 of the 360,000 Holocaust survivors in Israel are believedto be living in mental hospitals, suffering from acute depression and otherillnesses, some as a result of their experiences in Nazi death camps. Manyare in their 80s.
Some have accumulated large sums of money in reparations from the Germangovernment, receiving as much as several hundred dollars a month for thepast four decades. No official figure was available for the value of theiraccounts. But according to the daily Maariv newspaper, the total is in themillions, money that reverts to the state if the patients die without heirs.
But because of their mental illness, the Holocaust survivors are wardsof the state, and their bank accounts are administered by the court-appointedFund for the Care of Dependents. In turn the fund is supervised by the government'sGeneral Custodian for Wards, attorney Shmuel Tsur.
In an interview with Israel Television on Thursday, Tsur insisted thatthe fund tries to improve a patient's life as much as possible, but saidhe would consider any proposals.
"The policy is to give, not to save," Tsur said.
But Israel's chief rabbi, Meir Lau - himself a Holocaust survivor -called the policy shocking, and said he planned to visit the patients totry to ease their plight.
"I think the power of every moral society depends on its approachto the weakest, and our weakest are Holocaust survivors who are not healthyin mind and spirit," he said.
Shalev, the head of the Holocaust memorial and museum, proposed transferringcontrol of the funds to an organization "with the sensitivity neededto work with Holocaust survivors."
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