“You were just a child; you don’t even remember the suffering.”
As a child survivor of the Holocaust, Stefanie Seltzer is used to hearing this. Child survivors, she said, have long dealt with this added stigma and have special issues and needs, which is why she created the World Federation of Jewish Child Survivors of the Holocaust (WFJCSH) more than two decades ago.
WFJCSH has since united hundreds of child survivors, providing them with opportunities to connect with others who can truly understand the suffering of their shared pasts. Recently, WFJCSH convened its 23rd annual meeting, which brought together some 340 child survivors from around the world in Warsaw, Poland.
Most of the attendees were child survivors but a growing number of second generation survivors have been participating in WFJCSH in recent years, as well. Themed “Remember the past but be happy today,” the conference addressed such topics as attendees’ feelings about meeting in Poland, why some survivors chose to stay in Poland, Jewish life in pre-war Poland, and what it means to be a second generation survivor. Some of the sessions at the four-day conference were exclusive to child survivors, some were geared toward the second generation, while others were open to all.
Stefanie elaborated to me just how important it is for child survivors to have this opportunity to interact with each other. “This is our family,” Stefanie said. “Most of us have no family, so we call each other brothers and sisters. We are each other’s brothers and sisters.” And as I watched survivors and their families greet each other, it was clear how much this gathering meant to them.
WFJCSH has held conferences around the United States, Canada, Israel, and Amsterdam, but this was the first time the organization met in Poland, which was home to more than 3 million Jews before the Holocaust. “So many of our families were killed there, even those born in Belgium or France have some roots in Poland,” Stefanie told me. Poland is also the only major country from behind the Iron Curtain that has not passed any private-property restitution laws since the fall of Communism, which our own Arie Bucheister elaborated on during a panel discussion.
Given the importance of the conference and WFJCSH, I was honored to have the opportunity to address the more than 340 attendees and highlight the history of our negotiations with Germany and their results, the different compensation funds we administer, and the Successor Organization. For more than an hour after the formal end of that session, I, together with Claims Conference staff Arie Bucheister and Christiane Reeh, answered questions about the Claims Conference, individual situations, and what is available to survivors.
We were happy to take the time to answer as many of these questions as we could because, as I said during the session, even though the Claims Conference handles large sums of money for the benefit of the survivor community, we are not about money; we are about people, people who have experienced major traumas and suffering and who deserve to live out their lives with dignity. When we pay 50,000 people, we pay an individual survivor ˆ but we do it 50,000 times. Each survivor is a unique individual deserving of respect and care.
The children who survived the Shoah are our last link to the men, women, and children who emerged from the ashes of Europe. This oft-forgotten group of survivors deserves every bit as much recognition as their older peers. As such, over the past 30 years the Claims Conference has worked hard to expand the range of compensation programs for survivors born after 1927. For example, since 2008, 89 percent of approved Hardship Fund applicants were born between 1927 and 1945. Further demonstrating the change in how child survivors are viewed by the world, the United Nations, during its annual Holocaust remembrance day next year, is expected to include a special tribute to child survivors.
Stefanie, along with Max Arpels Lezer, represents WFJCSH on the Claims Conference board. She founded WFJCSH after attending a survivor conference almost 30 years ago that for the first time featured a workshop specifically for child survivors. Child survivors from the U.S. and Canada who attended found themselves calling and visiting each other throughout the following year. “We could not part with each other,” Stefanie said. “We are each other’s siblings.”
For more information on WFJCSH, visit http://www.wfjcsh.org