Why I can’t rejoice in the ‘Son of Saul’ Oscar (COMMENTARY)

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Hungarian actor Géza Röhrig as Saul, a Jewish prisoner working in the gas chambers and cremation ovens at Auschwitz. Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Hungarian actor Géza Röhrig as Saul, a Jewish prisoner working in the gas chambers and cremation ovens at Auschwitz. Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

(RNS) As the youngest child of a Holocaust survivor, you’d think I’d be rejoicing that a gritty Holocaust-related film won an Academy Award for best foreign language film.

I am. But I’m also troubled by the source of some of the funding for the movie.

After World War II, the German government allocated billions of dollars in funding as reparation to many of the Jewish survivors of the worst of the Nazi regime’s atrocities.

Without any input from the survivors themselves, several groups both nationally and internationally formed and then declared themselves the ones to decide who received funding and who was denied.

Their methods haven’t always been transparent nor do they always seem to favor survivors.

RELATED STORY: ‘Son of Saul’ actor on God, faith and Auschwitz 

The application process varies from country to country and agency to agency and the groups disseminating funds created their own restrictions.

Here in the United States, while some survivors are denied grants for potentially lifesaving medication or home health aides or even basics like food, these agencies choose to fund pet projects, including films about the Holocaust.

One such group, the embattled Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, better known as the Claims Conference, declared on its website that its mission is to secure “a small measure of justice for Jewish victims of Nazi persecution.” It also states that the German government has to date “paid more than $60 billion in indemnification for suffering and losses resulting from Nazi persecution.”

But the group seems to operate with a distressing lack of transparency and a corporate culture of evasion and dismissal of the individual needs and concerns of survivors. One has to wonder where the bulk of the remaining funding is at the present time and how it will be disbursed in the near future when there are no survivors left.

Over the years I’ve listened to the stories of scores of survivors, including my late father, about their experiences in applying for and being refused benefits promised them. On social media, at town hall meetings and Meetups, thousands of children of survivors share their own war stories of trying and failing to secure aid for our aging and ailing parents and grandparents from the Claims Conference and the groups it funds.

Many feel they’ve been demeaned, dismissed and discarded.

And so it made me a bit queasy to read a self-congratulatory email earlier this month from the Claims Conference in which it boasted to partially funding “Son of Saul.”

If there isn’t enough money to help out survivors, if policies on disseminating funds to the neediest are so rigid, how can a significant investment in a film be justified? Surely even a film that commemorates the atrocities of the Nazi death camps mustn’t take precedence over those who lived through it.

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I’m not saying the Claims Conference or organizations funded by them do nothing — they’re always sure to help out just enough to keep survivors desperate for help or too frightened to publicly question their methodologies of disbursement. But help and funding given is so minimal and eked out only after extensive and seemingly endless applications with nearly impossible requirements.

I’ve also learned enough over the years never to even bandy about words like “cronyism” or “favoritism,” or anything that smacks of misuse of funding, for fear of harsh retribution. As a part of doing business, this group that manages what is currently estimated to be well upwards of $1.5 billion, retains an A-List of lawyers and public relations teams who regularly and publicly quash voices of dissent and take legal action against individuals overly critical of them.

I will however, continue to bear witness to ongoing injustice from groups that continue to decide amongst themselves that it is their sole ability to choose how to disperse funds designated by the German government to be distributed to survivors of Nazi atrocities. And I will continue to listen to stories of survivors and their children trapped in endless red tape and broken promises.

At a time when “Mein Kampf” once again tops the best-seller lists in Germany and in a world of increasing anti-Semitism and rampant anti-Jewish movements, Holocaust education is crucial, and that includes films on the subject.

After the final Holocaust survivor has passed away and their heirs have been helped as stated in the Claims Conference mission statement, it would stand to reason that any remaining funding would support education about the Holocaust. But that time hasn’t come yet.

While there are still living survivors whose needs are not being met, funding should not go to entertainment ventures, no matter how worthy.

So by all means, please go see the movie “Son of Saul.” And tell your friends about it if you feel strongly enough, and please support efforts in your own community to combat racism and genocide. But while you’re at it, please tell the producers of the film to return the investment from the Claims Conference so that that money can be used to buy food and medicine for elderly survivors.

#Zachor (Remember).

(Rachel C. Weingarten is the daughter of Holocaust survivor, David Weingarten, who passed away in June 2015. She’s the author of several nonfiction books, including  “Ancient Prayer: Channeling Your Faith 365 Days of the Year” )

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  • Fascinating piece. I did not know any of this and I am a child of survivors (from Austria, not Germany, where the reparations process is a whole other story). I heard the film was very good, including from Jewish friends, but I had not been inclined to see it because it sounded too difficult to watch; I have revisited my family’s pain countless times. This information about the funding makes me doubly resistant; however moving to those who don’t know the stories, the information shouldn’t come on the backs of survivors who needed basics.

  • Great story! I wish this issue had been more widely publicized. Survivors are indeed suffering while at least one Jewish nursing home says it doesn’t have the funds to help survivors (see below). Those funds should come from the Claims Conference if they decide where the money goes.
    –Susan Kushner Resnick
    -author, You Saved Me, Too

  • Bela

    The Claims Conference only provided 50 thousand of the 2 million budget. The film was funded by the Hungarian National Film Fundation.

  • Rachel

    Edie, as the children of survivors, I think that we live the story of the Holocaust on a daily basis, so seeing films on the topic isn’t always our priority. And I completely agree that the stories must be told, but the survivors must be cared for first.

  • Rachel

    Thank you, Susan! But while it’s something many children of survivors are aware of, the general population seems to want to believe these groups are exclusively dedicated to caring for survivors. My hope is that more people will finally come out and question the allocation of these funds- or lack thereof. And yes, to your point about the Jewish nursing home as well.
    (your book looks fascinating!)

  • Rachel

    Bela, in the article I state that the Claims Conference was a source for “some of the funding for the movie.” You say that they provided only $50,000.00, but can you imagine how much medicine, home health care or even food that could have provided for elderly survivors? And the Claims Conference has also gone on record about how much they spend yearly on funding films and other cultural endeavors. It’s all on record. And it’s quite literally at the expense of survivors.

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  • vera Meisels

    VERA MEISELS -writer poet.
    I am a survivor from Ghetto Theresienstadt born 1936 in Czechoslovakia. From my experience I got all the support from Germany-as monthly payment and restitution for wearing the Magen Daviv.
    In Israel we don’t pay for the medicine concerning our past in the camps. The Claims Conference is relatively new fund. Even so,they pay me now for my lost childhood 2500 Euro. This payment is provided to all children who were in Europe during the war.
    I see no connection to the “Son of Saul” and the victims who neglected their
    rights to get restitution money long time ago.
    All the Jews at the diaspora has to be proud and thankful to the film “Son of Saul” as the testimony about what was going on at the gas chambers.
    I appreciate the fact -winning the Oscar – so millions will see the Jewish tragedy. The fact about the Holocaust will be – Not forget me!!.
    The film is even a document against the denial of the Holocaust.
    Bravo to the “Son of Saul”

  • Rachel

    My father was a survivor of Theresiendstadt as well! What a miracle you and all the survivors are who lived through the Shoah and continue to tell your stories. And yes, some survivors chose not to accept restitution since it’s their belief that no amount of money can make up for childhoods/lives stolen. But the process in the U.S. is quite different as it is in many countries around the world and many survivors are refused help or aid. And your experience is not necessarily the typical one. We both agree that it’s important to tell the stories, but as my article states, funding must first go to the survivors who need it and request it but are refused.

    Wishing you all good things-

  • Faith

    Rachel, thank you for writing this piece and creating awareness. Both my parents are holocaust survivors. For the past two yrs they have been trying to get help from the claims conference , to no avail. There is no transparency and no accountability. They have filled out application after application. Each time there is a new person in charge and has not had the paperwork forwarded or they lost it or a multitude of ridiculous reasons. Each Time they are promised the sun and the moon and have yet to receive any reparations or services. All though I feel the movie is good for awareness , the $50,000 could have been better spent on helping survivors. That money would go a long way to make many survivors lives manageable Simple life’s necessities would be a tremendous help. Like paying for medication to having grab bars installed in the shower. Thank you for providing awareness. I thought I was alone in my frustration in getting my parents help from the claims conference .

  • Haim Beliak

    The respectful and efficient aid that should be given to survivors relates the question of priorities. The educational value of “Son of Saul” must be secondary to the medical and other needs of Holocaust survivors. A series of article in the Forward http://forward.com/news/176250/how-57-million-holocaust-fraud-unfolded-at-claims/ detailed sever mismanagement of these funds. Even the ombudsman and auditor Mr. Shmuel Hollander was dismissed when he reported his findings: http://forward.com/news/311159/claims-conference-ombudsman-says-he-was-booted-over-critical-report/
    In addition prominent insurance companies (Alliancce) have simply bought and stalled their way out of dealing with insurance claims http://www.sun-sentinel.com/florida-jewish-journal/news/palm/fl-jjps-allianz-0217-20160216-story.html
    No one is held accountable for designating these funds to make the last days of the survivors a bit easier. Incredible and horrible… Shame on us children of survivors.

  • Peter Kubicek

    Rachel, Your article is cogent and very well written. I did not know that the notorious Claims Conference (about which a lot has been written) contributed a payment to the film, “Son of Saul.”

    I am Holocaust survivor and did see the film. While I found it very disturbing, I was very pleased that it received an Oscar.

    Peter Kubicek
    Author of “Memories of Evil — Recalling a World War II Childhood”

    Incidentally, when I came to this country in 1946, I was so traumatized that I abhorred anything to do with Germany. As a result I refused to apply for a pension from Germany, even though I was eligible for it since I suffered from tuberculosis.

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  • Leah

    Dear Ms. Weingarten, i myself have constantly been frustrated, angry and disgusted by the agency you refer to. Over the years, my husband’s parents have been bullied, rejected, harrassed and threatened by some of the people who are part of this agency.
    My mother in law, a survivor of Auschwitz and Bergen Belsen and the only survivor of her immediate family, has been subjected to threats and bullying by her ” social worker ” and taken advantage of over the years in one way or another. We have often encouraged her to speak up but she fears losing her ” benefits ” ( a helper two days a week and someone who cleans her apt one day a week ) . She has paid 15-20% of her reparations to an ” intermediary ” who takes advantage of survivors by filing their forms. I could go on but you have probably heard it all.

  • Paul,
    Thank you first of all for the very kind words. And I’m glad that you thought the movie worthy of its award as well. And how absolutely fascinating that you couldn’t even bring yourself to apply for a pension. It makes sense, of course after everything that you’ve been through.

    Wishing you the best of health and all good things,

  • Faith,
    Thank you so much for your comment and also for sharing your story. I think that’s the part that’s imperative- to keep sharing your story. Far too many survivors and their families are caught in a maze of endless applications and excuses and are made to feel as though they are the only ones going through it. I keep thinking about the end of the movie Schindler’s List where he tried to imagine what his ring could have bought (forgive me, I don’t remember the quote offhand). I think of what that $50,000.00 could have provided for survivors, small things that could make a huge difference in a life, and I can’t help but wonder about all of the funding that went to projects before survivors.

    You’re not alone.
    Imo Anochi betzara, “I am with him (you) in his(your) suffering” (Psalms: 91:15)

  • Haim,

    Thank you for those links and also for your thoughts. I agree of course. And there are so many facts and statistics backing up what we already know– perhaps the world is ready to hear about this further ongoing injustice to the survivors.
    We continue to bear witness though. We remember. And hopefully as more of us continue to share our stories, there will be a greater measure of justice and fairness for survivors before it’s too late.

  • Dear Leah,

    Thank you so much for sharing your story. And what a horror for your mother in law and for too many survivors who have had similar frightening experiences. I have heard from so many survivors and their families who were also fearful of speaking up for the implicit threat that benefits would be cut off. There are far too many bottom feeders including as you mention “intermediaries” who take advantage of survivors and their families. I can think of one person in particular who misrepresented himself and bilked hundreds upon hundreds of survivors of assets while doing precious little to help them.

    I’m saddened and disgusted to keep hearing more and more stories, but grateful that we are able to share them.

    Stay strong- you are not alone!

  • (Mr. Kubicek! Please forgive my earlier post in which I accidentally called you Paul instead of Peter).

  • My parents either never applied or were rejected, but we never received help as a family. I never questioned this because, although they lost their parents , and all the property that they owned ( homes /farms, all assets) , my parents were never in concentration camps, thank God, but literally escaped to Siberia, in time, and lived in Russian during the war. Perhaps they unknowingly shielded me from dealing with the past by not being involved in any way with the German Government and not having them know my whereabouts and existence, I was born in Germany, right after the war. My parents went to a DP camp, hoping to find their parents and relatives alive. I never even considered applying, since I am a daughter, and my parents have died. But, in a Holocaust group, someone stated that in some cases children would be eligible, too. I called the number and filled out a form and got a letter stating only those living in Nazi occupied areas in Russia were eligible.

  • Bela

    Rachel, the budget of the latest Start Wars’ was 200 million … Are we all guilty?

  • Garson Abuita

    As Heschel said: Some are guilty, all are responsible.

  • Peter Kubicek

    Rachel, You are hereby forgiven. Peter and Paul are easily confused. And thank you for your best wishes: at my venerable age of 86, such wishes are always appreciated.


  • Peter! You are a kind and beneficent soul and are greatly appreciated. The world is a better place for having you in it, for telling your stories and continuing to represent survivors (and gentlefolk 🙂

    Wishing you health and happiness and many future birthdays!

  • Bela, Did even a single dollar for the Star Wars movie come from funding intended for Holocaust survivors? It might help to reread this article for the specific details.

  • Zelda, it’s such a complicated process and your history is filled with so much pain. I wish I had a more effective answer, but I’m grateful that you shared your story with the rest of us.
    I’m grateful that your parents survived and that you’re here to tell their story.

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