It’s been 80 years since Nazi soldiers laid siege to the city of Leningrad, Russia, during the Holocaust, but memories of the desperation haven’t faded away for Russian Jews like Raisa Khusid, who survived starvation and bombardment.
Food was so scarce, Ms. Khusid recalled in an interview on Tuesday, that one of her uncles fed them unimaginable things.
“He was actually going outside after the rain to collect the worms,” Ms. Khusid said through a Russian translator on Zoom.
But only now is Ms. Khusid, 80, who lives outside Chicago, eligible for pension benefits from the German government as part of an expanding restitution program for Holocaust survivors, according to the main negotiating organization for those benefits.
The group, the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, better known as the Claims Conference, announced on Wednesday that it had secured an additional $767 million in benefits for Holocaust survivors. During the past 70 years, the group estimated, the German government has set aside more than $90 billion for Holocaust survivors.
As part of the most recent negotiations, the Claims Conference said, Germany agreed to recognize the extreme suffering of Russian Jews who had endured the more than two-year Nazi siege of Leningrad, which is now St. Petersburg, Russia.
Because Leningrad had not been occupied by the Nazis during the blockade, which lasted from September 1941 to January 1944, previous restitution efforts met with resistance from German officials, said Stuart E. Eizenstat, the group’s longtime top negotiator.
“They said, ‘Look, well, the non-Jews suffered,’” Mr. Eizenstat, a former U.S. ambassador to the European Union, said on Tuesday. “We were able to show them Nazi fliers that were dropped that said that Jews were the cause of the siege. So their level of persecution was greater.”
Mr. Eizenstat, an expert adviser to the State Department on Holocaust issues under three presidents, commended German negotiators for budging on the issue.
“We’re dealing with people who weren’t even born during the Holocaust,” he said, adding that negotiators used Zoom because of the coronavirus pandemic. “They still recognize their moral responsibility.”
The German Embassy in Washington did not immediately comment.
Ms. Khusid, who moved to the United States in 2010 to live near her daughter, is one of an estimated 4,500 Holocaust survivors who lived through the siege of Leningrad and is eligible for a pension, the Claims Conference said.
The pensions will pay an annual benefit of about $5,200 or 4,500 euros, according to the group.
An additional 2,000 Holocaust survivors who hid in France and Romania will also qualify for the pensions, which the organization said had an income-eligibility scale — the annual limits are about $52,000, €45,000 in Europe and 168,000 shekels in Israel.
Mr. Eizenstat, a former U.S. deputy treasury secretary, pointed out that more than 50 percent of all Holocaust survivors were currently living at or near poverty levels. The problem, he said, is particularly acute in Eastern Europe.
“Many of these have no extended families,” he said. “These pensions are lifelines. We’re talking about people who have to choose between food and medicine and some socialization.”
An additional 1,700 survivors who were children during the Holocaust and had previously received one-time payments will now be eligible for supplemental hardship payments of €1,200 in 2021 and 2022, the organization said.
The subject of reparations for Holocaust survivors has been a contentious one in both Germany and Israel over the decades, Mr. Eizenstat said, noting that Konrad Adenauer, the first chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany, acknowledged that the country was responsible for the crimes of the Nazis.
“This was an unprecedented statement by a defeated power in a war,” Mr. Eizenstat said, “to say that they felt responsible for the civilian deaths caused by the defeated power.”
But in a 1952 speech to the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, Menachem Begin, a future prime minister, sharply criticized the reparations and questioned how survivors could accept money from people with blood on their hands.
Mr. Eizenstat didn’t see it that way.
“I believe that what Germany has done is truly historic and inspiring,” he said. “No one could have possibly imagined how far Germany would have come in recognition of its past.”
Ms. Khusid said that her grandparents had been buried alive by the Nazis and that an uncle who had once brought the family food had starved to death. Another uncle came from Moscow to help her family escape, which involved crossing the treacherous Lake Ladoga during the winter.
“A lot of times, people were shot while trying to escape,” she said, adding that her grandchildren struggle to understand her ordeal when she explains it to them.
Mr. Eizenstat said that his work was not done, however.
“People say, ‘How long are you going to do this?’” he said. “Well, Hitler wanted a 1,000-year Reich. The least we can do is until the last survivor breathes their last breath.”