A woman prays in front of a wall bearing the names of victims during Holocaust Memorial day at Budapest's Holocaust Memorial Center.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
When I was young, Holocaust survivors seemed both larger than life and, somehow, perfectly ordinary. At seven years old, I thought the numbers tattooed on the arms of my friends’ grandparents were normal - after all, nearly all of them had them.
And hearing firsthand stories of the Holocaust was a regular occurrence. My grandfather told my sisters and me stories from when he was a boy, stories that were detailed and precise. The stories were so horrendous, that they were difficult to even believe. He didn’t sugarcoat or change the details of his childhood for the ears of his young listeners. He told it straight, as it had really happened - it had been difficult, agonizing, and traumatizing.
“My mother was nine months pregnant, separated from my father, crawling on her hands and knees through a field with bullets flying overhead,” he would tell me with a strong, yet shaking voice. “She had all four of her kids crawling behind her, so for two hours she called out our names and we would answer with a simple 'here' so that she knew we were still alive.”
Somehow, his stories provided comfort. The fact that he survived these atrocities and went on to marry and have a beautiful family told my sisters and me that the bad guys didn’t win - that evil never wins; that a great atrocity struck our people not too long ago, and, though it left scars we would never forget, it did not break our body or spirit.
I listened to my grandfather talk about his miraculous journey and survival during the Holocaust, and stored his words deep in my heart. At seven years old, I already realized what gems these memories were, and how lucky I was that he was sharing them with me.
“Every one of your grandparents who came from Europe has a story of survival, even if they don’t feel able or want to share it with you,” I remember one of my teachers saying, as she introduced a friend’s grandmother to share her emotional Holocaust story with our class.
I also remember that my school had a big electric clock, which in the two months following Holocaust Remembrance Day, would count from zero to six million. This was my school’s way of showing us how unfathomably large six million is; it takes over two months just to count up to it.
For so many of us, this lesson was powerful not just because of how large six million is, but because the clock was counting our grandparents, aunts, uncles, parents, and cousins who were killed in the war. Each second represented another one of our loved ones gone. When I was young, the Holocaust was personal. It wasn’t as much a history lesson as it was my grandparents’ life story. It was like studying my family tree.
But this Holocaust Remembrance Day, it struck me hard that times have changed.
The gatherings for Holocaust survivors this year were significantly smaller than in years past. Every day, over 40 Holocaust survivors die in Israel. And for those still living, each day can be a struggle to survive: over 45,000 Holocaust survivors live below the poverty line and struggle for food, medicine, and to keep a roof over their head. It’s a devastating statistic for a group that has already suffered so much.
If for the next 10 years the Jewish community invested its money into caring for poor Holocaust survivors instead of building more Holocaust museums and memorials, we wouldn’t have the disgraceful epidemic of needy Holocaust survivors. That is what we at The Fellowship have dedicated ourselves to - we have projects across Israel that are run efficiently and effectively and provide food, medicine, housing, dental work, and more to Holocaust survivors.
There is no excuse for Holocaust survivors being left to fend for themselves in their final years, living the end of their lives in stress and sadness.
In a few too-short years, it is going to be completely up to us to educate the next generation on the atrocities of the Holocaust. We won’t have those who lived through this terrible chapter in history to tell their shattering stories. Our children will not see the tattoos on the arms of the survivors.
And, after we tell the heroic tales of the brave survivors we once knew, how will we answer our children when they ask us why, during the historic final decade that we had Holocaust survivors living among us, we allowed 30 percent of this precious population to live in poverty?
Now is the time to look in the mirror and realize that we’re all responsible for this atrocity of poverty among the last remaining Holocaust survivors.
Now is the time to act. The writer is senior vice president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews.