Israeli Holocaust survivors are getting left behind in COVID-19 pandemic

We have become a country of the deep divide – the “haves” and the “have-nots”.

 LONELINESS HAS proven to be one of the most challenging aspects for survivors throughout the pandemic. (photo credit: SASHA FREEMIND/UNSPLASH)
LONELINESS HAS proven to be one of the most challenging aspects for survivors throughout the pandemic.

Israel is a start-up country considered to be one of the leading places in the world for research and development initiatives. Our country’s economy, in spite of a pandemic that has created havoc worldwide, has remained intact with the shekel stronger than ever. 

Yet having just returned from the UK where my shekel bought far more than it could buy here, only strengthened the concept that we have become a country of the deep divide – the “haves” and the “have-nots”.

At the start of this year, the National Insurance Institute published a report showing that, bereft of a functioning government (it was only last month that the Knesset finally succeeded in passing a budget for the first time in over three years) has left the poorer section of the country in dire straits. According to the report, almost two million Israelis live beneath the poverty line; these include both young and old, among who are Holocaust survivors. 

Readers of my column might remember an article I wrote some time ago, when I told the story of one survivor who – after being encouraged by her social worker – applied to a government body for financial help, yet came away feeling she had stood in front of the Gestapo.

COVID-19 is not only responsible for the worsening of the financial situation for many, it has also caused devastating psychological damage to Holocaust survivors, evoking traumatic memories of his/her past. 

To find out more the Magazine spoke with Dalia Sylvan, a psychotherapist working for Amcha, an organization set up in 1987 by Dutch Holocaust survivors to assist survivors. Today it has become a worldwide leader in developing psychological support for those who – in spite of the most horrific barbaric experience – miraculously remained alive at the conclusion of World War II.

Sylvan, formerly Amcha’s northern director whose responsibilities today covers the entire country, explains that her prime task is to ensure that psycho-social therapy is available at the numerous Amcha branches and day centers countrywide. These psychosocial clubs, run by experienced social workers, not only offer the opportunity for varied activities, but a professional psychological support program specifically pertinent during the current pandemic. 

Sylvan shares the story of a survivor for whom the lockdowns created memories of another lockdown which – for too many – ended in the gas chambers. An example she gave was that of Hannah, as we shall call her, a 90-year-old woman of Hungarian origin who, as a teenager of 14, experienced both labor and concentration camps. The lockdown evoked memories of how the Nazis separated everyone, and how they were left in isolation with a hunger that could never be quelled by the menial portions of bread and potatoes. 

Confined to her Haifa home during the lockdown, with her only child living in Tel Aviv, Hannah’s young neighbors offered to shop for her. When they asked what she needed, her response was bread and potatoes – the stable diet of the concentration camps.

LONELINESS has proven to be one of the most challenging aspects for survivors throughout the pandemic. A study by E. Cohn-Schwartz, Y. Bachner and S. Carmel, published online by Cambridge University Press, focused on the comparison between Holocaust survivors and other older adults living in Israel. While COVID-19 places the elderly at increased risk for hospitalization and mortality, for Holocaust survivors the additional sense of isolation imposed by the pandemic evokes the trauma of their past experience.

Among Amcha’s various programs, geared specifically to counter the emotional damage of being alone, is the outstandingly successful one that connects survivors with young people with whom they can share their experiences and legacy.

Back to the beginning highlighting the poverty faced by 2 million Israelis, including Holocaust survivors: While Sylvan states that, today, the financial situation has improved – since government bodies are reliant on the recommendation of those directly working with survivors rather than the survivor having to face a committee and a barrage of questions – the fact remains that the annual State Comptroller’s report consistently cites an increase in the number of Holocaust survivors requiring financial assistance. 

It also faults the authorities for not sufficiently “mapping the needs” of Holocaust survivors, or using all the funds designated for them. 

In addition, there are questions whether the funds given by Germany to Israel as reparations, specifically for survivors, actually reached the survivors. The same has been said of the Claims Conference. 

Bottom line: however much we – who are not survivors – believe we understand where human beings have been and survived, the truth is that we cannot begin to comprehend the inhumanity that they have suffered. Perhaps that is why the late Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks said, “The Holocaust survivors are among the most inspiring people I have had the privilege to meet.”

For sure they deserve not only our admiration and respect, but the opportunity to live their last remaining years in dignity and comfort. 

The writer is chairperson of Israel, Britain and the Commonwealth Association. She is also public relations chair of ESRA which promotes integration into Israeli society.