Since last Holocaust Remembrance Day, about 13,000 Holocaust survivors in Israel have died, an average of more than 1,000 a month. In all, there are an estimated 193,000 Holocaust survivors still living in the country. Their average age is 85 years old.
We are running out of time in more ways than one.
Most critically, we are running out of time with regard to Holocaust education. Nothing compares to direct contact with a person who actually survived the horrors of the Shoah. Nothing can compare to this unmitigated human encounter. No number of books, museum tours, trips to concentration camps in Poland, treks to mass graves in Ukraine, or visits to the memorial site of the Wansee Conference in Berlin where the Final Solution was decided, can compare to the testimony of a living Holocaust survivor.
A poll commissioned by the Massuah Institute for Holocaust Studies reinforced this self-evident fact. Teenagers who were exposed to various forms of Holocaust education reported in large numbers that they learned most by hearing first-hand from survivors. Half of the teenage students surveyed said that by meeting and talking with a survivor they learned more about the Holocaust. In contrast, just 13 percent who were exposed to classes on the Holocaust in school and just 5-10% who visited museums, participated in seminars, or took part in memorial events said they learned more.
Above all, we are running out of time when it comes to how our society is taking care of the remaining Holocaust survivors in our midst. Over the last decade or so, practically every year as Holocaust Remembrance Day approaches, media attention turns to the socioeconomic plight of Holocaust survivors. This year is no different.
There are some 50,000 Holocaust survivors living here under the poverty line, according to the Foundation for the Benefit of Holocaust Victims in Israel.
About 20% say they have to skip meals because they do not have enough money.
Two years ago, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee-affiliated Myers-JDC-Brookdale Institute published a survey based on interviews with 52,000 survivors that found that 5% complained they do not have enough to eat. Others lack basic medicines or medical treatment.
Still others are unable to care for themselves. Every year we hear of additional funds being allocated to survivors.
We therefore welcome the approval by the cabinet on Sunday of Finance Minister Yair Lapid’s one-billion shekel national plan to assist Holocaust survivors living in Israel.
“It is our moral obligation to ensure that Holocaust survivors among us will live the rest of their lives with respect,” Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu told his ministers ahead of Holocaust Remembrance Day today.
Lapid, together with Welfare Minister Meir Cohen, requested expedited approval for the plan so that it can be brought to a vote of approval in the Knesset within three weeks. The budget will be added to the NIS 835 million already allotted by the Finance Ministry for the next five years.
“It is inconceivable that those who managed to survive the worst atrocities of human society cannot survive Israeli bureaucracy,” said Lapid. “We are changing this today,” he added.
Cohen called the move “one of the most dramatic and ethical decisions since the founding of the state.”
In addition to governmental support, the Conference for Material Claims Against Germany and a host of charities continue to contribute to the welfare of the survivors.
Non-governmental organizations are helping out, too. The International Fellowship of Christians and Jews has set aside NIS 5.25 million per year for survivors.
The vast majority of the survivors living today in Israel arrived here in the last 25 years from the former Soviet Union. They were recognized as Holocaust survivors, although they never actually lived under the Nazi regime. Holocaust survivors who lived in concentration camps, hid or fought with partisan forces, number only a small fraction of the total.
But if a nation, society, or civilization is judged by the way it treats its weakest members, then Israel must now dedicate its efforts to aid Holocaust survivors as a national priority, and meet the challenge of taking care of them no matter what the cost. Sunday’s cabinet decision is a welcome step in the right direction, but much work remains to be done.