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The lonely survivor

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Yom HaShoah candle

He braces himself against the stacks of old papers and food packaging scattered throughout his diminutive apartment at Bathurst Street and Steeles Avenue in Toronto.
His is a challenging life. It is a sad life.

He is a survivor of the Holocaust, and nobody comes to visit him except a social worker from time to time, or those young religious girls who listen to his memories of Auschwitz. He thinks they think he is simple and has little depth, but they are wrong. Or perhaps he is, and they don’t think that at all.

The days are long and the nights are quiet. His shelves are stocked with tinned spaghetti and rice crackers, but he’s thankful to the National Council of Jewish Women for a box of Passover food brought to his home. His Passover seder was traditional, but only the spirit of the prophet Elijah walked through his door, and he (the prophet) was in a rush.

READ: THE TWO STORIES THAT EMERGED FROM THE HOLOCAUST

One day, many years ago, the once debonair man wrote a letter to all the Jewish leaders he could think of. The letter was written on a special cotton stock with his name embossed in gold ink along the centre-top. He begged them to recognize the plight of many Holocaust survivors in Toronto, Israel and elsewhere, who live below the poverty line and experience the worst lifestyle possible after the Shoah – loneliness.

Cordial responses arrived from rabbis and executive directors expressing their concern. One even asked him to speak at a conference addressing survivor poverty and isolation. He accepted, but the conference never happened. It was cancelled because there were “other pressing priorities.” He had already written his speech.

The next morning, after receiving that letter, he tossed his speech into the garbage. All afternoon he stared at the crumpled piece of paper. As he did, he remembered his late wife, Minnie. Her image comforted him and made him sob. Mengele, “the bastard,” had experimented on this beautiful young woman and ensured that children and grandchildren would never be part of their lives.

And as the light of the day dimmed and Yom Hashoah ended, he continued to wonder how it was at all possible that any survivors could be by themselves. He thought about the hundreds of songs, plays and reports about the plight of survivors of the Holocaust and how many had been abandoned to a life of solitude.

READ: THE CHALLENGE OF TEACHING THE SHOAH

In his mind, he just couldn’t understand how it could be that not a knock came on his door and the telephone stayed quiet. He didn’t need the old dial phone anymore so, as the darkness fell, he pulled it from the wall and placed it on top of the stack of newspapers. It sat there like a silent relic never to be plugged in again.

The lonely survivor died in the winter. The good people at Steeles Memorial Chapel called around for a minyan to say Kaddish for him. The final amen was a shame.

***

On Yom Hashoah, commit to discovering who our survivor population is at home and in Israel and how you can visit. One of the greatest injustices in our society today is to let an elderly survivor be alone! It is our responsibility to rectify this sin and to ask the lonely survivors to forgive us for not being more vigilant, as we said we would.

According to the Foundation for the Benefit of Holocaust Survivors (September 2015), Israel is home to 189,000 Holocaust survivors, 25 per cent living below the poverty line. Their average age is 84. About a third of them live alone.


Reach Avrum Rosensweig at Avrum.rosensweig@veahavta.org