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

(RNS) While some Holocaust survivors are denied grants for medications or home health aides, the Claims Conference chooses to fund pet projects, including "Son of Saul."

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

Hungarian actor Geza Rohrig 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.

READ: Israeli-American woman sues El Al after she was asked to change seats

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” )

Donate to Support Independent Journalism!

Donate Now!