Reflections of a Holocaust survivor

Russian propaganda, crudely dehumanizing and calling Ukrainians “Nazis” to justify Putin’s reign of terror, along with mass deportations and murders, are an ominous warning of worse atrocities ahead.

 Visitors seen at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial museum in Jerusalem on April 26, 2022, ahead of Israeli Holocaust Remembrance Day.  (photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
Visitors seen at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial museum in Jerusalem on April 26, 2022, ahead of Israeli Holocaust Remembrance Day.
(photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)

I was born in Slovakia in 1929, and survived the hell of Auschwitz and Buchenwald, but I survived alone. I lost my mother, father, sisters, brother, aunts, uncles and cousins in the Holocaust. After the war, I was fortunate to prosper in this great land, the United States, and build a family with my wife and two children, five beautiful grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Yet, I am haunted by the fact that America’s heroism in WWII came too late for 105 members of my family and 6 million other innocent Jewish people, including 1.5 million children – potential scientists, physicians, philosophers, artists and loving family members whose lives were so cruelly denied to them.

Today, we survivors and the civilized world are witnessing atrocities by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Russian forces against innocent Ukrainian people. The current tragedy reminds us all too starkly that human beings are capable of indescribable hatred and criminality. It is unbearable for those of us who witnessed our loved ones murdered in cold blood, while the world stood silent, to now see the scenes of brutality and murder against innocent people.

Russian propaganda, crudely dehumanizing and calling Ukrainians “Nazis” to justify Putin’s reign of terror, along with mass deportations and murders, are an ominous warning of worse atrocities ahead.

At least today, the US has led a coalition of allies to provide desperately needed arms to Ukraine and impose severe economic sanctions on Russia and its leaders, persuaded international companies to stop doing business with Russia, and supported the refuge of millions to safety in Poland, Israel and other countries. God willing, these measures, which are intensifying, will force or convince Putin to reconsider the madness he has unleashed. But, we all know evil is real and must be stopped by superior force.

 Fire burns in a building damaged by a missile strike, as Russia's attack on Ukraine continues, in Kyiv, Ukraine, in this handout picture released on April 29, 2022. (credit: Press service of the State Emergency Service of Ukraine/Handout via REUTERS) Fire burns in a building damaged by a missile strike, as Russia's attack on Ukraine continues, in Kyiv, Ukraine, in this handout picture released on April 29, 2022. (credit: Press service of the State Emergency Service of Ukraine/Handout via REUTERS)

Russia’s nuclear-fueled impunity makes it clearer than ever that Iran must never obtain nuclear weapons capability, which would pose an unacceptable threat to Israel and the entire region.

In remembering the Holocaust, it is also our duty to describe, forever, how the civilized world turned a blind eye to Hitler’s war against the Jewish people; to permanently protect Israel’s safety and security, and condemn and neutralize the dangerous rise in antisemitism everywhere.

Part of the Shoah’s terrible legacy is that tens of thousands of Holocaust survivors – some half of the survivor population – barely scraped by, living in poverty, without adequate food, medicine or home care. Survivors suffer from extreme physical and mental-health challenges due to the long-term effects of starvation, beatings, disease, malnutrition, and other traumas that we endured in the ghettos and camps, and from the murders of our loved ones by the German Nazi regime. While there are many who should have helped decades ago, modern Germany is chiefly responsible and has failed.

In 2013, leaders of the Holocaust Survivors Foundation USA pressed the Obama-Biden administration to urge Germany to provide for 100% of survivors’ medically prescribed needs. Germany responded by increasing funding to an average of $13,500 per year per survivor. That’s only enough for 12 weeks of home care. What is an indigent survivor supposed to do for the other 40 weeks?

Even with modest increases in funding by Germany, poor Holocaust survivors have been receiving, on the whole, less than one-third of the resources they need for essential, life-saving home care. As the linked graph compiled by the Holocaust Survivors Foundation USA shows, Germany’s funding shortfalls for survivors’ home care worldwide averaged $700 million per year from 2004-2017. Then it got worse – the deficit exceeded $1 billion each year from 2018-2021. 

Though thousands and thousands of our dear brothers and sisters have died in agony alone and without the care they needed, there are thousands who are in desperate need who cannot be forgotten.

No one can ever repay us for the murder and destruction of the Holocaust. However, the Nazis and their collaborators also perpetrated a massive theft of the European Jewish people’s property and assets. Insurance companies such as Allianz, Generali, AXA and others sold policies to Jewish families before WWII, and then demanded death certificates and other documents survivors could not possibly provide. They collectively owe more than $25 billion to survivors and heirs.

Sadly, many institutions, organizations and individuals who know better, including the US government and the courts, have protected these culprits by denying court access for survivors and heirs. We applaud the bi-partisan efforts of Senators Marco Rubio, Rick Scott and Jackie Rosen, and Representatives Debbie Wasserman Schultz and John Garamendi, to enact legislation in the US Congress to allow survivors and heirs access to the courts to recover these policies.

We also applaud the US Supreme Court’s unanimous decision last week to allow the Cassirer family of California to pursue their battle to recover a Pissarro masterpiece that was indisputably looted from their great grandmother by the Nazis in 1939. The Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection Foundation, owned by Spain, has the painting now and refuses to return it.

We find it hard to believe that the Spanish people really support the government’s stubborn determination to claim Nazi-looted art as its own and deny a Jewish family their rightful ownership. But, we applaud the Court for opening the door to the family’s recovery. We pray the Court’s decision will finally put an end to the kind of distortions and corruption of history that Spain and the museum have engaged in to deny the family their family legacy.

With the clear connection between theft and mass murder evidenced by the Nazis and other perpetrators of atrocities, we pray the Court’s unanimous ruling will send a message to those who profit from atrocity that they will be held accountable to the victims of their inhuman behavior.

As we observe Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, in 2022, we are committed to ending atrocities of all kinds, and to holding accountable those who collaborate and profit from these crimes. And, we remember and pray for the victims of the Holocaust who perished, we convey the Jewish people’s determination not to forget their suffering, and are committed to providing justice and dignity for the remaining survivors among us.

The writer, of Miami, is president of the Holocaust Survivors Foundation USA, a national coalition of Holocaust survivors and survivor organizations. He is 92 years old.