Hungarian survivors receiving $400 payments from Swiss fund

BUDAPEST — In the Hungarian capital here are thousands of sorrowful stories similar to that of Ilona Debreczeny.

Deported by Hungarian fascists at age 16, she suffered at four concentration camps between August 1944 and May 1945. Along the way, she came under Dr. Josef Mengele's knife at Auschwitz and her teeth were knocked out at Mauthausen.

At a recent ceremony, the chairman of the Swiss Holocaust Memorial Fund directed his comments to survivors like Debreczeny.

Rolf Bloch spoke here recently at an event marking the disbursement of $400 payments to Hungarian Jewish Holocaust survivors. The money came from the $190 million pot created a year ago by Switzerland's three largest banks to douse the furor over Switzerland's not-so-neutral stance in World War II.

"The Swiss fund is respectfully grateful to be able to bring some relief to Hungary," said Bloch, who also heads the Swiss Jewish community. "This is a sign of solidarity between the Swiss and you. Please take it as it is meant — it is not a compensation, it is not restitution, but a gesture of good will."

But there was no relief on the melancholic, lightly powdered face of Debreczeny or the other half-dozen survivors in attendance.

"This is a gesture of people who had the money and heart to help us a little bit," said Debreczeny, 71. "But this money will not make the past be forgotten."

Still, with tens of thousands of indigent Holocaust survivors sprinkled across Eastern Europe, the cash will be put to quick use.

During the more than four decades of the Cold War, virtually no compensation trickled to survivors in the Communist bloc. Now, Holocaust survivors here are finally getting their due.

The Hungarian government began last fall to pay monthly pensions ranging from $50 to $200, depending on a recipient's age, to the country's 20,000 survivors.

The Swiss fund's payments were distributed by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee to some 7,000 survivors in the two weeks before the ceremony. The balance will soon receive their checks.

Germany is expected to follow suit later this year by making its first payments to survivors in the formerly communist countries of Eastern Europe.

Ultimately, each needy survivor in Eastern and Central Europe, including Latvia and Hungary, will receive total payments of $1,000 from the Swiss fund.

That's little solace to elderly Jews like Hilda Barinkai. In August, she'll turn 100.

"It came too late for us," said Barinkai, echoing widespread sentiment. "At a certain age, people don't have dreams, don't have wishes. If it had come 30 years ago, when we still had something to do, something to spend it on, it would have been better. Now all I can do is take the taxi more often."