Holocaust survivors in Israel – living symbols (of poverty)

One of every four Israeli Holocaust survivors lives in poverty.

An elderly woman. [illustrative] (photo credit: REUTERS)
An elderly woman. [illustrative]
(photo credit: REUTERS)
“We have a special obligation to see to the welfare of Holocaust survivors. The government has provided additional resources to be used in caring for their well being and medical needs, and we will provide, willingly, whatever more is needed. Holocaust survivors are a symbol of our revival. They, who endured the Holocaust, deserve to live their remaining days in peace and contentment.” – Benjamin Netanyahu
“My dear ones, Holocaust survivors […], Israel glorifies heroism but does not always bestow sufficient honor upon the heroes themselves. It is time. Not always have we taken care to hear their heartbeat, to provide for their sustenance and health. It is time to correct this.”
– Shimon Peres
The generosity of hand and heart conveyed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and the concern expressed by former president Shimon Peres, accurately reflect the fervor felt by many in Israel.
However, according to a report published by the Foundation for the Benefit of Holocaust Victims in Israel in April 2014, one of every four Israeli Holocaust survivors lives in poverty.
In a survey of 400 survivors conducted by the Foundation, one out of five noted that they were forced to choose between medication and food during the past two years due to economic hardship, and half reported suffering from loneliness. Over a third approached the Foundation last year to request assistance; most of these fall into the Finance Ministry’s “needy” category.
Where are the funds, asks the Israeli artist Chertkoff at an art exhibit with that title.
He states, “The state assetizes the Holocaust narrative but has abandoned the Holocaust survivors!” This troubling question has an equally troubling answer: When the reparations agreement with Germany signed in 1952, claims Yossi Katz, Israel placed the needs of the new state above the needs of the survivors. The German funds were used to build the country and absorb refugees, and Israel, in the name of the survivors, waived any further claims against Germany. This precluded the possibility of personal injury claims by Israeli survivors, unlike their fellow survivors living anywhere else in the world.
The struggle for legislation to compensate deprived Holocaust victims continues to this day. Israel left the matter of personal claims against Germany to private organizations, which opened the way for a thriving industry of public and private bodies that profit at the expense of the survivors. Israel even held, illegally, property and monetary assets that had been invested in the country in the 1920s and 1930s. According to Raul Teitelbaum, both Israel and Germany posed bureaucratic obstacles, turned the claimants into defendants and wore them down with demands of proof of their status as victims. Thus, a paradoxical, systematic neglect of those considered to be Israel’s most cherished citizens, the symbol of the revival of the Jewish People – the survivors.
The paradox remains unexplained. Logic dictates that “a country’s budget reflects its values – who it values, whose work it values, and whom it decides to remunerate…” Holocaust survivors today are cherished as national heroes. Why, then, does Israel not devote appropriate resources towards supporting who it cherished? In this article I wish to offer a new perspective that may resolve the paradox: Maybe there is no paradox! Perhaps the neglect and the symbolization do not contradict but match: the glorification of survivors diverts the attention from the materialistic to the symbolic and thus plays a role in the neglect of their welfare.
“The mythical structure,” writes historian Yael Zerubavel, “thus reinforces the primacy of the ideological message over historical accuracy and enhances the symbolic significance of the event, beyond the historical constraints of a specific time and place.” In other words, the symbolization detaches the public from the mundane details and blurs them. In the same vein, anthropologist and researcher of religion Mircea Eliade states that the only way for the collective memory to preserve historical and individual events is to turn them into archetypes, canceling their historic and personal uniqueness. Symbolism, as an act of abstraction and generalization, works against the concrete and detailed character of individuation. The symbol is elevated far above the realm of the earthly and the mundane, and the object of the symbol is inaccessible. Thus, Avishai Margalit describes the moral witness as being on a high spiritual level, making him a moral force.
The following, from a student’s journal written on a trip to Poland, demonstrates the trend of symbolization: “We met our witness, Pinchas, who is one of the most amazing people I’ve ever met. He told us a bit about his life during the Shoah.
There are people who are so brave and strong.
I’m sure that those who perished also had hope and were strong, but sometimes even the strong fall.”
Pinchas the survivor-witness is a living symbol and so he is stripped of his human, prosaic qualities and is made into a hero.
The symbolic status of the survivors is completely detached from all responsibility toward their welfare. This is exemplified in the following story reported by Orli Vilnai- Federbush: “After Hanna, a survivor, gave testimony in Majdanek, the young people ran back to the bus to escape the freezing cold, leaving her alone by the memorial. Only when not all were accounted for on the bus did they realize her absence. Hanna slipped and fell on the ice, and was taken to the hospital in an unconscious state, having fractured her skull.
Her son looked after her for three weeks and brought her back home to Israel.
“In the lengthy court case that resulted, the Education Ministry disavowed all responsibility: ‘The claimant is an adult and freely made the choice to accompany this mission to Poland. She was not entitled to an escort...
She was not alert and did not exercise caution to avoid an accident... and did not request assistance.’” Let us dwell for a moment on the behavior of those on the mission. The picture is clear: the shackling of the survivors to the status of living symbols gives rise to a tendency to think of them as intangible and abstract. This blurs their earthly needs and leads us to keep our distance while we maintain our sense of awe – obliterating any need to take practical responsibility for them.
In actuality, the idea that transformation of Holocaust survivors into symbols is a guarantee of their careful preservation by the state is mistaken. The mythification process actually supports the opposite of what one might expect.
Still, there is cause for optimism. In the past decade, Israeli society has shown an interest in the lives and practical needs of its heroes, the survivors, and has proved willing to fight to secure a comfortable existence for them. In 2002, former MK Colette Avital established a panel of inquiry that sought to locate and return assets taken from Holocaust victims to their rightful owners. In the wake of the panel’s conclusions in 2005, legislation was enacted to establish an official body dedicated to the restoration of property to the victims.
In the popular domain, a turning point came in 2007, when at a Holocaust Memorial ceremony, hundreds of students and youth demonstrated at the Knesset to protest government handling of stipends for survivors, carrying banners that read “the March of the Living is here.”
The inquiry carried out by Orly Vilnai-Federbush and Guy Meroz, entitled “Moral Reparations,” sparked a public outcry. New public awareness and protest led, and continue to lead, to new legislation and allocation of resources, including an aid package for survivors approved in 2014 in the amount of one billion shekels a year.
It should be noted that beyond the public pressure to improve the plight of the survivors, we are witness to a number of social initiatives that foster direct and personal contact between survivors and students, soldiers and schoolchildren. In this way, survivors are not limited to the realm of testimonials on trips to Poland. This, I believe, is a “post-symbol” trend; an Israeli choice to strip away the holy layer of living symbol, to look squarely at flesh and blood individuals, and to make them our business. Following is a quote from a young man, in early 2014, calling us to take part in a program for Holocaust survivors in Kiryat Yam:
“Today I met Moshe, an 81-year-old survivor who lives alone in a small, old apartment in Kiryat Yam. Moshe barely survived the Holocaust, and today he barely survives daily living... He says he has a son who has no time for him. ‘Being alone is the hardest thing in the world, all my family and friends have passed away and I am left alone.’
“Those interested in volunteering one hour a week to spend with a lonely Holocaust survivor like Moshe should call us and we will match them with a survivor.”
The author, a social psychologist, is a lecturer and the academic advisor for the MA programs in Contemporary Jewry and Family and Community Studies at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.