They are our brothers and sisters, but we have not been their keepers.
According to the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, some 260,000 Holocaust survivors – about half of the approximately 517,000 who are still alive today – live in poverty. The majority of the poor, about 90,000, live in countries of the former Soviet Union and some 70,000 live in Israel.
As time runs out for these elderly people, our moral failure to address the plight of survivors who were unable to reconnect with society and who now live out their lives at its edges, in penury and in poor health, is a colossal sin of omission of historic proportions.
It is by no means the purpose of this article to analyze the failure or otherwise of official bodies or non-profits that have undertaken the responsibility to deal with the situation. Such an analysis would shift the focus from where it should be: to expose our baffling response to the plight of the destitute survivor.
Our relationship to the survivor, our living link to the most appalling calamity in our history, is quite unlike any other. We are bound at the most primal biological level: our Jewish birth. For survivors, it meant the most horrific consequences; for us today, the privilege to be part of a people writing a glorious chapter in its history. We cannot undo history, but consider how just it would have been had all survivors, even the poorest, been treated as treasured beings by their resurgent people, a people risen from the ashes. The mystery is why it never happened.
In 2011, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s (JDC) Myers-JDC-Brookdale Institute carried out a study in Israel, where some 208,000 victims of Nazi atrocities live. Approximately 33 per cent or 66,000 live below the poverty line. A number live in “shameful conditions,” Ron Kalinsky, the CEO of the Foundation for Holocaust Victims in Israel, told the Jerusalem Post. These survivors are among the poorest elderly in Israel. They die in indignity amid the plenty of a sovereign Jewish homeland.
As shocking as that is, the situation of survivors living in poverty in countries of the former Soviet Union is scandalous, despite the best efforts of the cash-strapped JDC. “An estimated 60,000 indigent elderly who can’t afford a basic diet, let alone medicines, have been turned away… because we don’t have the resources to help them,” said Steve Schwager, CEO of the JDC.
This astounding number should roar across the Jewish world. How did we allow our moral compass to slip from our fingers? Pleading ignorance of their plight is damning. It is a non-starter. It should be our business to know.
Disturbing questions crowd the mind. Is it a case of wilful blindness? Is the presence of the poverty-stricken survivor so inconvenient to the Holocaust narrative that we choose to look the other way? Are they the spoilers stubbornly lingering on in dreadful circumstances inducing guilt and resentment and so better ignored, the crack running across the symmetry of a beginning and an end to the Holocaust nightmare? Or, is it simply a case of deluding ourselves, assuming they are being taken care of by official bodies, and then not asking how effective these organizations are, and if they are not effective, what can be done to redress the situation.
In Canada, the survivors we are likely to meet are by and large remarkable people who’ve risen from their past to forge successful lives. They are witnesses to the enduring and indomitable human spirit. We are reassured, even elevated, by their success. Few of us, though, ask the question, what has become of those survivors who have not succeeded in overcoming their pasts?
The measures taken to alleviate the survivors’ poverty reflect the ambivalence we have toward the inconvenient survivor. The fumbling of successive Israeli governments is a case in point.
On Aug. 21, 2007, the speaker of the Knesset, Dalia Itzik, on behalf of the Israeli government, declared, “We are here to rectify the situation [of the plight of survivors] so that we may be able to look into the survivors’ eyes and tell them on behalf of Israeli society, we apologize.”
Such a declaration by the central organ of government could not have been more emphatic, and yet its implementation fell far short of expectations. And this is the situation in Israel, which has all the resources of a modern state and where the Diaspora could have played a partnership role. Where were we?
What of our impoverished brethren living in countries of the former Soviet Union and elsewhere? The indignity of the twice-cursed survivor living in poverty continues, first by an apathetic world and now by their largely apathetic people.
At no time in our history have we been better prepared to transform the situation than now. The past 65 years have demonstrated what a renascent people can achieve. It has been a golden age of achievement unprecedented in our history. Never have we had such means at our disposal, never have we been so organized, never have we been freer to mount a global operation to reach even the most isolated survivor living a life of suffering, let alone the impoverished survivor living in our community.
It is not as though nothing has been done. Shafts of light are provided by the superb work done by the JDC, the Jewish Agency, the Foundation for Holocaust Victims in Israel, NGOs and other organizations. Yet for all they do, it remains insufficient. Their frustration is palpable. So much more could be done.
How long will we, the Jewish community, consider the status quo as good enough before we recognize that this is a global Jewish emergency? Without that happening, any hope of rallying our organizations and the global Jewish community in a last act of chesed is dashed – and with it, any chance to salvage our own dignity.
Soon it will be too late. On average, 12,800 survivors die each year (35 people a day). At least a quarter of them will have lived their lives in poverty, and this in Israel! We would suppose the figure for those who lived their lives in poverty to be at least equal, if not greater, in the former Soviet Union.
When the last survivor dies in poverty, we and future generations will be left to ponder the conundrum of how it came about that a people whose central tenet of morality is “Ve’ahavta lereacha kamocha,” to love your neighbour as yourself, could as well, with breathtaking irony, withhold this embrace from their very own.
Dov Harris recently retired as director of financial resource development, regional communities, with UIA Federations Canada.