Survivors of the former Nazi German concentration and extermination camp Auschwitz arrive to the former camp in Oswiecim..
(photo credit: REUTERS)
On this Holocaust Remembrance Day, as on previous ones, we commemorate the six million murdered in the Shoah by the Nazis and their many accomplices.
But while remembering those who were lost is essential, caring for those who survived must not be overlooked.
According to data provided by the Foundation for the Benefit of Holocaust Survivors, there are in Israel today about 189,000 Holocaust survivors, of whom about 45,000 are living under the poverty line. One-fifth skip meals because they do not have enough money to buy food.
Four years ago, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee-affiliated Myers-JDC-Brookdale Institute published a survey based on interviews with 52,000 Holocaust survivors that found that five percent complained they do not have enough to eat. Others lacked basic drugs or medical treatment. Still others were unable to care for themselves.
Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, founder of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, poignantly observed, “Sadly, we have been focusing on memorializing those who perished in the Holocaust, but ignoring the current plight of hundreds of thousands of survivors around the world who are living out their last days in wretched poverty.”
His organization has not forgotten the survivors. The IFCJ provides more than $7.3 million annually in food medicine, winter heating fuel, daycare and other assistance to more than 18,000 survivors in Israel. The organization also aids more than 60,000 survivors and other poor-elderly Jews in the former Soviet Union with an additional $15 million annually in food, medical assistance, home care and winter aid.
The call to aid Holocaust survivors has been heard by the government as well. On Monday, Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon presented a NIS 500m. plan designed to aid Holocaust survivors and the elderly.
Just last month, Social Affairs Minister Haim Katz revealed that about NIS 400 million earmarked for Holocaust survivors by the State of Israel over the decades was never used and remained in the vault at the Treasury. He plans on making sure that this money reaches those who need it.
The vast majority of the 189,000 Holocaust survivors living in Israel today arrived here in the last 25 years from the former Soviet Union. Though recognized as Holocaust survivors, many never actually lived under the Nazi regime but instead became refugees who fled eastward to Siberia and Soviet Central Asia, or fought in the Red Army.
Holocaust survivors who were in the ghettos and concentration camps, or hid and fought with partisan forces, are a minority among this group.
In short, most of the impoverished elderly we refer to as Holocaust survivors were in actuality victims of the horrors of the World War, II not unlike many non-Jews. They do not fit the stereotype of the survivor. And this raises a serious question: Should Holocaust survivors receive special treatment? Shouldn’t all elderly people in Israel who are sick, poor and lonely be taken care of fairly and equally? Campaigns focusing on the poverty of Holocaust survivors portray them as charity cases. In reality, the vast majority of those who lived through the hell of the Shoah and the Second World War somehow found the strength to put all that behind them and embark on the daunting challenges that faced the fledgling Jewish state.
As Holocaust scholar Hanna Yablonka has pointed out, the vast majority of survivors who came to Israel focused on rebuilding their lives and building the new Jewish state – and they were wildly successful. “Most survivors found a core of inner strength that is hard for us to comprehend,” noted Yablonka. “Their collective story is one of personal and human victory.”
Survivors have left their mark in every field from building and construction to the IDF, industry, law and culture.
They became prominent painters, graphic artists, poets, writers, dancers, actors, academics and cultural icons.
Indeed, it is impossible to imagine the State of Israel today without their many contributions.
It is embarrassing to admit, but there are hundreds of thousands of elderly people – both Holocaust survivors and not – living in Israel who are desperately in need of help.
Time is running out for all of them. Holocaust survivors who experienced first-hand the horrors inflicted on them by the Nazi regime and its many accomplices have a unique role to play in teaching the younger generations. But no elderly person – especially if he or she survived the Holocaust – should be left to live in poverty.