Respect the survivors

And how are the survivors doing?

Holocaust memorial candles (photo credit: TED EYTAN/FLICKR)
Holocaust memorial candles
(photo credit: TED EYTAN/FLICKR)
How ironic that the theme of this year’s Holocaust Remembrance Day, which begins Wednesday night, is “The War Within the War: the Struggle of the Jews to Survive During the Holocaust.”
Ironic, because the struggle to survive continues 74 years later, right here in Israel.
There are approximately 211,000 Holocaust survivors living in Israel, the vast majority over the age of 80. By 2025, just about 102,000 will still be alive – half the number of survivors living today, in just six years – and all will be 85 or above. By 2030, some 53,000 will still be alive, all over 90 years old.
And how are the survivors doing?
Not well.
A recent study by Maccabi Health Services published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that survivors of the Nazi horrors were at higher risk than people born in Israel when it comes to a long list of illnesses – from high blood pressure to kidney and heart disease, osteoporosis, cancer and dementia.
The study found that the higher incidence of illness was attributed to rampant malnutrition, physical and psychological trauma and other hardships faced by Jews during the Holocaust. But the facts remain: 83% have high blood pressure, compared with 66% for the native-born; 33% of survivors are overweight compared with 26% of native Israelis; and 31% compared with 10% suffer from kidney disease.
Paradoxically, the survey also found that Holocaust survivors live longer than their Israeli-born peers, contributing to the country having one of the world’s highest longevity rates. Survivors live an average of 84.8 years, compared with 77.7 for native-born Israelis of the same age group.
Part of the reason is no doubt genetics, but another is the will to survive: if, say, you were among a handful of people who survived a death march, then it is likely that you were more resilient and blessed with characteristics that gave you a greater chance for survival.
For those survivors who came to Israel to rebuild their lives – a story that is both one of individual victory and a collective triumph of the human spirit – that will to live continues today.
Perhaps the most important statistic is this: 45,000 survivors are living below the poverty line. These are survivors who can’t afford to heat their home in the winter, can’t afford to buy food or medicine, can’t take a taxi and instead have to travel by bus – at the age of 90. They can hardly walk, they don’t have someone to take care of them: to help them eat, dress or take a shower.
And that is to our shame.
Their cry for help is not new. There have been numerous government committees over the years examining the state of Holocaust survivors, and it seems the conclusions of such committees are put into a drawer and forgotten. The result is that survivors are dying one after the other, without getting the help they should be getting from the government.
It is hard to fathom how Israel has gotten itself into the current situation regarding Holocaust survivors, but there it is.
But all is not lost. The Finance Ministry maintains an office called the Holocaust Survivors Rights Authority, which provides allowances for survivors who were sent to death camps or ghettos, or went into hiding. Survivors with disabilities also receive stipends.
Everyone is aware of the ever-increasing needs of an aging population – a population that is growing rapidly across society. Is it too much to ask to help Holocaust survivors? Can provisions not be made to help them, for example, to simplify the process of applying for special support such as dental care, hearing aids and eyeglasses, to make sure that they receive all eligible benefits?
The election campaign that just ended did not spend much time addressing the needs of Holocaust survivors, and that was a wasted opportunity.
But the new Knesset that was sworn in on Tuesday has a chance to address the situation – to provide enough funds to remove the abject poverty so many survivors live in, and provide adequate medical care to make the years that are left to them as comfortable as possible.
There’s not a moment to lose.