Here and There: Bittersweet

Statistics are one thing, but there is nothing quite as meaningful as personal stories to bring home the plight of the sufferers.

Spanish ceramic Seder plate (photo credit: THE ISRAEL MUSEUM)
Spanish ceramic Seder plate
(photo credit: THE ISRAEL MUSEUM)
This is a time of the year when the Israeli calendar is filled with commemorative and celebratory events. It is especially appropriate that this period of remembrance is preceded by the festival of Passover. The story of our Exodus from Egypt – our slavery that turned into freedom – is a vivid reminder of the bittersweet reality that comprises our history.
We were 15 family members seated around this year’s Seder table. The Seder was conducted by our younger son, who requested nine of us (from three generations) say a few words on a specific Haggada topic. I was asked to speak on “maror and haroset,” the maror representing the bitter times our ancestors suffered as slaves in Egypt, and the haroset, the sweetness of our redemption.
Seated with our grandchildren and their cousins, ranging in age from 14 to 24, I wanted to impart a message of how privileged we are to be able to celebrate Passover in Jerusalem, the capital of the one Jewish state. I chose to talk about the forthcoming commemoration of Holocaust Remembrance Day, a time when we remember the murder of six million souls simply because they were Jews, and how this is followed one week later with the celebration of Yom Ha’atzma’ut – Israel’s Independence Day.
COULD THIS young generation, I wonder, begin to comprehend the meaning of what it is to have our own Jewish state? Could they understand the reality of how the world – back in the 1930s – closed their gates, thereby preventing the entry of Jews wishing to find refuge? A sentence that has resonated with me over the years was spoken by a Jewish Agency emissary Morris Zilka: “We lost six million not only because of Hitler and his barbaric acts, but because of the passive collaboration of the free world – not what they did but rather what they did not do – they did not open the gates of their respective countries to those Jews seeking refuge from the Nazi regime.”
In the aftermath of World War II – by 1953 – Israel became home to the largest number of Holocaust survivors, some 170,000. However, back in those early days, both the survivors and the State “colluded” by not speaking of the individual and collective horrors that befell those caught up in Nazi occupied Europe. Individuals felt too traumatized, and some children were ashamed of how they perceived their parents’ generation being led like sheep to the slaughter.
Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, had a different concept of what it meant to be Jewish. We had come back to Zion and must live in the glorious present of what it meant to be a Zionist rather than recall the pain of how Jews were barbarically annihilated.
With the passing of the years came recognition of the importance of remembering our tragic past. A 1960 study showed that barely a quarter of schools taught children about the Holocaust. By 1982, however, the Education Ministry made teaching of the Holocaust compulsory for all children.
But what of the Holocaust survivors themselves – how has life treated them and, more importantly, how have they been treated by the respective countries which they finally were able to call home? In the United States – home to The Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany set up to distribute reparations given by the German government to Holocaust survivors – it took until 2009 to discover that between 1993 and 2009 some $57 million that should have gone to the survivors was fraudulently taken by some who were administrating the funds.
Around 180,000 survivors live in Israel today. Until recently only those who had been in concentration camps or ghettos were considered eligible for financial help. Since 2015, however, the term “survivor” has expanded to embrace those who managed to survive in Europe during World War II.
The fact that there are as many as 45,000 survivors living beneath the poverty line here should be a source of shame for our government.
STATISTICS ARE one thing, but there is nothing quite as meaningful as personal stories to bring home the plight of the sufferers. AMCHA is an organization set up in 1987 by a group of Holocaust survivors and devoted mental health professionals to – as they state on their website – “create a framework for mutual aid, memory processing and grief resolution.”
I spoke with an AMCHA social worker who has worked with the organization for some 20 years. Ilana (pseudonym) provided an insight into the trauma experienced by a large number of survivors she has taken under her wing.
What is clear is that those survivors who could afford to hire a lawyer received reparations direct from Germany.
The others had to rely on the Israeli government – recipient of $800m. from Germany in the 1950s for distribution to Holocaust survivors. Sadly, however, many survivors received in shekels the same figure as received in euros by those who had employed a lawyer. An 88-yearold who had survived the war hiding in the forests of Poland told Ilana it would have been far preferable to have received reparations direct from Germany rather than have to “beg” for them via the Israeli bureaucratic machinery.
Many of those Ilana cares for express fear of having to appear before va’adot (committees comprised of three doctors and a nurse), where they have to “prove” their disability in order to claim financial support. The long wait outside the office prior to the interview reminds them of how it felt appearing before the Nazis in Auschwitz – frightening, degrading and humiliating.
As one woman put it, “The aggressive hostile questions came fast – when I answered, it seemed that what I was saying was not accepted as the truth – they made me feel that I was lying. I became traumatized and overwhelmed by panic attacks leaving me unable to behave normally.”
The result of such interviews was negative with an application for financial support being rejected.
In addition, when endeavoring to claim reimbursement for part of the cost of purchasing glasses or teeth, impossible barriers are placed in the way of the claimant – numerous forms to be completed which, for many, proves too difficult a task.
Ilana shared with me the tragic background of an old man who has lost virtually all his memory except for remembering that “knock on the door” that took away his entire family; and the Kindertransport girl who, at the age of eight, was placed by her mother on a train whilst the mother remained on the platform. Today, as an 85-yearold woman, she still cannot come to terms with what she said to her mother at that moment of separation, “Now you won’t have to be responsible for me anymore.” Her mother was murdered at Auschwitz.
As parents we cannot begin to imagine how it must have been for parents to put their children on a train knowing that they were unlikely to see them again. Is it any wonder that the trauma of the survivor can be passed on to the third and fourth generation? Having just marked Holocaust Remembrance Day, let us pray the government will ensure the survivors receive the support they richly deserve; with many in their 90s and some over 100, the time is now.
As we move on towards Independence Day, let us glory in the reality of the concluding words of Hatikva – “To be a free people in our land, the land of Zion and Jerusalem.”
Hag Atzma’ut Sameah! The writer is co-chairperson of ESRA, which promotes integration into Israeli society. She is also active in public affairs.