On Thursday April 19th, as the siren goes off on Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, Israelis throughout the country will stand to observe a minute of silence to remember the atrocities committed in Europe by the Nazis and their collaborators. On the evening before, the streets are quiet, places of entertainment are closed, and most of us Israelis are at home, watching films and testimonials about the Holocaust, thinking about the 6 million Jews who were lost.
In fact, we think about the Holocaust all year long; when Israelis send their children on trips to Poland or when we, along with every diplomat visiting Israel, pay a visit to Yad Vashem. We strive to educate the new generation about this tragic time in history, and are adamant to ensure that the dead will not be forgotten. But are we so obsessed about the 6 million dead that we forget about the living Jews?
When we see an old man with that tattoo on his arm, we automatically think about the terrible ordeals that he must have endured in the 1940s. Do most of us ever think that this man could be enduring a terrible time in the present? Wrongly, we do not. Out of the 250,000 Holocaust survivors living in Israel, more than a quarter live below the poverty line. This means that many of the people who survived the Nazis' atrocities, and sought shelter in Israel, do not have enough money to cover basic living costs, such as a home, food, medical treatment and clothes. Above all, this means that Jews who were hungry in the ghettos and in the death camps 70 years ago are still hungry today, in the Jewish state.
How did we get to this terrifying reality? The vast majority of Holocaust survivors arrived destitute, without the financial resources to give them a secure start. This disadvantage has continued to plague them throughout their lives and many have reached old age without the savings necessary to ensure that they can live their last years in comfort.
Although many survivors receive monthly payments from Holocaust compensation programs and/or the Israeli government, as they have aged and begun to experience increased health problems, many of them have found that these payments are not sufficient to cover their most basic needs. Indeed, Holocaust survivors in Israel are twice as likely to experience chronic illnesses as other people their age and nearly half report trouble sleeping. Furthermore, a significant proportion requires regular medication for trauma related mental-health disorders. Increasingly, the bills for necessary medical care are swallowing their small income, leaving them unable to pay for basic living costs. In the service area of the Jaffa Institute, the non-profit organization where I work, there are approximately 15,000 Holocaust survivors and it is estimated that over 4,000 of these survivors are living in poverty.
Born and raised in Bulgaria, Yaakov made aliya right after the Holocaust, which decimated much of his extended family. To this day, he finds it almost impossible to talk about that period, and his eyes become distant and filmy as he recalls how as a young teenager, he and other healthy Jewish boys from his town were taken to a Nazi labor camp for three years, without any way of knowing the fate of their families. After this three year hell, Yaakov was released and immediately immigrated to the Holy Land together. Today, Yaakov lives alone, and since his savings are long gone, he lives in dire poverty.
Survivors also need to make great efforts to be recognized as Holocaust victims by the State of Israel and to receive compensation. A significant number of legitimate victims of the Holocaust do not have the mental or physical strength to face these bureaucratic difficulties and receive compensation, and are consequently in great need of financial support.
As Elazar Stern, Chairman of the Foundation for Holocaust Victims, has said, "The needs of needy Holocaust survivors will continue to grow…The younger generation will not forgive us if we do not deal respectfully with the older generation."
Holocaust survivors will soon disappear. In addition to our grief and remembrance of the Holocaust as a historical tragedy that must never be forgotten, let us not forget the living victims of the Holocaust. We need to rally round to help them. Whether this help translates into donations or volunteer work, let us all remember the dead and the living victims of the Holocaust and take action. We can only do so for a few more years.
So let us all make sure that we will be active in giving or doing on this Yom HaShoah. Otherwise, when we won't be able to give our children a satisfying answer to why we did not help the last remaining survivors, not only should the younger generation not forgive us, we should not forgive ourselves.
Deborah Garel is a Grant Coordinator at The Jaffa Institute, a private, non-profit organization that strives to break the cycle of poverty and to create a new reality for thousands of underprivileged Israeli children from Jaffa, South Tel Aviv and Bat Yam. The Jaffa Institute also provides food parcels every two weeks to 120 Holocaust survivors in the greater Tel Aviv-Jaffa area of Israel.
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