There is a stooped, bald man with bright blue eyes who lives on the top floor of a modest apartment block on the border of south Tel Aviv. He smiles longingly at a picture of his now-deceased brother who came with him to Israel to start a new life more than thirty years ago.
Stephan, a resident of Reuth’s subsidized housing program for more than thirty years, lives a quiet but fulfilling life. He participates in group activities, sits in the development’s well-groomed garden, and tidies his apartment on a daily basis, always mindful that guests may drop by for a visit. He enjoys spending Shabbat and holidays with his Reuth family.
A Holocaust survivor from Hungary, Stephan lost every member of his family other than his brother at the age of 16. After years of wandering the globe in search of a home, he immigrated to the Jewish homeland. In his apartment block, he has found a community and a support system, but he is most assuredly the exception to the rule, as hundreds vie for the small Reuth apartments whenever they become available.
When Holocaust education is discussed, the phrase “never forget” is echoed constantly. Enormous projects like Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation have been established to document survivor stories, Yad Vashem and other Holocaust museums welcome hundreds of thousands of visitors annually, and the Holocaust has become the main focus of history classes at the high school and collegiate levels around the world.
Great efforts have been made to ensure that future generations will be appropriately educated about the horrors of the Holocaust.
But we are still egregiously neglectful. We are forgetting the living.
One in every four Holocaust survivors in Israel lives well below the poverty line. Having arrived in Israel with nothing, they could never quite figure out how to catch up.
Emotionally and often physically broken, these men and women in their forties and fifties had great difficulty picking up a new language, integrating into a new culture and learning new trades. Despite having survived the war, they faced a bleak future once again. What they needed then, and still need today, is kindness and a basic framework for living life.
After suffering so tremendously during the Holocaust, our survivors deserve to be treated like heroes. The reality, however, is that so many of them slip through the cracks, a forgotten people walking among us.
After years of being worn down by war, loneliness, psychological trauma, and poverty, their expectations of humanity are dangerously low and their tolerance for suffering is dreadfully high.
Most Israeli citizens assume that the government is taking responsibility for the survivors, but that is not the whole truth. Though the government provides some benefits, they simply cannot get their arms around this ever-expanding problem. As such, these elderly men and women are often volleyed from one bureaucratic office to the next, struggling to secure a few hundred shekels of benefits.
In many cases, the system proves too complicated for them, and they throw their hands up in despair. Too tired or afraid to advocate for themselves, they live a life of pain and uncertainty.
Stephan and more than 150 other impoverished Holocaust survivors found a home and a family at Reuth, but there are so many more who have been lost in the shuffle. Stephan and his friends have found a place to age with dignity and are involved in activities that keep their days – and their hearts – full. Yet, all around this Promised Land there are Holocaust-era heroes who live in squalor, lonely and forgotten.
We cannot allow this to continue. We must lift up these survivors and help give meaning to their lives.
On International Holocaust Memorial Day, the world commemorates the systematic state-sponsored murder of six million Jews during World War II. We remember the fallen and declare “Never again!”
But there is another element to the story that is rarely discussed. There are those still among the living who are fading into the background, not yet gone but already forgotten.
It is time we remembered the living.