Running out of time

Hundreds of thousands of elderly people in Israel are in desperate need of help.

Holocaust survivors arrive at Auschwitz (photo credit: REUTERS)
Holocaust survivors arrive at Auschwitz
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Since last Holocaust Remembrance Day, about 13,000 Holocaust survivors have died in Israel, which is on average over 1,000 a month. In all, there are just 190,000 Holocaust survivors still living. Their average age is 85.
We are running out of time.
We are running out of time with regard to Holocaust education. Nothing compares to direct contact with a person who actually lived through the horrors of the Shoah. Nothing is like the unmitigated human encounter. No number of books, museum tours, or trips to concentration camps in Poland, treks to the mass graves in Ukraine or visits to the memorial site of the Wansee Conference in Berlin where the Final Solution was decided can come close to the impact of the testimony of an actual 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 firsthand 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% to 10% who visited museums, participated in seminars or took part in memorial events said they learned more.
But we are also running out of time when it comes to how our society is taking care of the rapidly shrinking Holocaust survivor community. Over the last decade or so, practically every year as Holocaust Remembrance Day approaches, media attention turns to the socioeconomic plight of Holocaust survivors, and this year is no different.
There are in Israel 50,000 Holocaust survivors living under the poverty line, according to the Foundation for the Benefit of Holocaust Victims in Israel. And 20% said they had to skip meals because they did not have enough money.
Two years ago, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee-affiliated Myers-JDCBrookdale Institute published a survey based on interviews with 52,000 Holocaust survivors that found that 5% complained they did not have enough to eat. Others lack basic drugs or medical treatment.
Still others are unable to care for themselves.
Every year, we hear of additional funds being allocated to Holocaust survivors. Last year, Finance Minister Yair Lapid announced that over the next four years a total of NIS 465 million would be allocated for Holocaust survivors. In 2012, we were notified that the government had increased its annual aid to Holocaust survivors by NIS 6m., to NIS 206m. In addition, the Conference for Material Claims Against Germany and various charities continued to contribute to the welfare of the survivors.
This year, Lapid and Social Services Minister Meir Cohen received cabinet approval for a NIS 1 billion national plan to assist Holocaust survivors.
“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.
The NIS 1b. will be added to the NIS 835m. already allotted by the Finance Ministry for the next five years. Private organizations are helping out too. The International Fellowship of Christians and Jews has announced that it will set aside NIS 5.25m. per year.
Still, the vast majority of the 190,000 Holocaust survivors living today in Israel arrived here in the last 25 years from the Former Soviet Union. They were recognized as Holocaust survivors though they never actually lived under the Nazi regime.
Holocaust survivors who were in the ghettos or concentration camps, or who hid from or fought with partisan forces, number only a few thousand.
THIS RAISES a serious question: Should Holocaust survivors receive special treatment? Shouldn’t all elderly people who are sick and poor and lonely in Israel be taken care of fairly and equally? Campaigns that focus on the poverty of Holocaust survivors create an image of the Holocaust survivor as a charity case. But in reality, the vast majority of those who lived through the hell of the Holocaust somehow found the strength to put all that behind them and embark on the daunting challenges that faced the fledgling Jewish state – fighting our many enemies, absorbing immigration and creating a society made up primarily of refugees and immigrants.
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.”
Holocaust survivors 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 firsthand 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 helpless elderly person – whether he or she is a Holocaust survivor or not – should be allowed to live in poverty.